Fourth of July celebration a mental battle for combat veterans

TAMPA, Fla. - Helicopters flew over Cpt. Greg Amira almost every night during his 13 months in Iraq. The loud hum overhead was like an Army lullaby.

"You'd sleep right through it, but you'd hear that distinctive boom and you'd wake," Amira said.

That "distinctive boom" was an IED explosion. Amira survived three.

"You kind of cringe when you hear that noise in the battlefield," he said.  "When you're in Iraq, you're scared, especially after the first time you're hit with an IED."

The Fourth of July is the day Amira fought for, but getting through the fireworks-filled night, for many combat veterans, is a battle of its own.

"This creates a scenario where they're hearing the noise or they're seeing flashes of light, and that simulates in their mind a situation where they were in battle," explained Dr. Joseph Gutmann.

Dr. Gutmann treats Bay Area veterans, many of whom describe July 4 as an anxiety provoking evening, especially if they suffer from PTSD like Amira.

Amira remembers one of his first Fourth of July holidays after his return from Iraq. He stayed inside his house, doors locked.

"I didn't leave. I cranked the TV up," Amira recounted. "It was going into the night. Every little one of them would set me off."

He didn't sleep that night, even though he told himself over and over that the booms weren't bombs.

"That's not the way the brain works," Dr. Gutmann said. "The brain works in such a way, it's a defense mechanism that you can't control."

For Amira, the holiday gets a little easier every year. He focuses on smiling kids and the color of the fireworks.

In some ways, the Fouth of July is like his body armor, on display in his office. It's not without painful memories, but nevertheless, it stands as a symbol of freedom.

"Wherever we're fighting, this is the day we're fighting for," Amira. "I'm proud on a day like today that I served and did some good."

If you or a loved one suffer from PTSD, visit All About Counseling or the Wounded Vets Association at http://www.woundedvets.org .

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