Social Justice

'Fireworks sound like war': Ex-RAF member with PTSD warns of bonfire night's impact on veterans

A new campaign has launched ahead of Bonfire Night calling for people to register their fireworks displays to alert veterans and others with PTSD

veteran/ firworks

Pete White, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. Image: Supplied

Fireworks light up the dark autumnal nights in spectacular displays. But as crowds gather in awe, Pete White is catapulted back to Afghanistan and the worst moments of his life. He is suddenly surrounded by the explosive sounds of war. He faces panic attacks. He can dissociate.

“The entire month of November can be a write-off,” the 36-year-old veteran says. “I’m much less productive. I’m on a short fuse. I’m always waiting for fireworks to start. It can make you sick and give you symptoms of a stomach bug. That can last for an entire month. On the more grim end of things, I can have a PTSD episode. My experience can be panic attacks. 

“I might dissociate where I completely zone out. I am just not there. You can’t talk to me or get my attention. What you find is a constantly heightened state of wondering what’s going to happen and constantly being reminded of the worst points of my life. And my symptoms are actually mild compared to others. If what I go through sounds bad, it’s nothing compared to other people.”

A campaign is calling for people to register their fireworks displays so that veterans and others with PTSD can be notified. It is led by barrister Jasmine Skander, who specialises in clinical negligence with a specific focus on military injury. Many of the veterans she represents have experienced PTSD following service in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“I have read statement after statement talking about fireworks and how difficult it is in November and in the run up to Christmas when the fireworks go up,” Skander explains. “Sometimes people are recovering quite well and then the fireworks start in November and they deteriorate and it takes them until Spring to get back on their feet again.”

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

White is hugely supportive of Skander’s register. “It is a very simple thing and a very powerful thing. If I know when [the fireworks] start, it’s not an instant reaction of warfare, it’s the knowledge that it’s fireworks. And that is incredibly important. This shouldn’t be just a little private initiative. I believe it should be adopted at government level.”

White was deployed to Afghanistan as a member of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 2011 and spent five months there. His most difficult time was working in casualty reporting, which involved spending hours wading through videos and pictures of British servicemen being killed and injured. 

“That had a significant impact on me,” he explains. “I became suicidal. I had an attempt on my life in 2014. I had a period of psychosis. I was self-harming. Then I left the military in 2017 under medical discharge for PTSD and depression.”

White having happy times with his son. Image: Supplied

White is now much better and using his experiences to help others as a mental health consultant and writing books for kids to help them understand their emotions. But fireworks have the potential to take him back to his darkest moments. 

“It is really unpredictable how things are going to go,” White says. “It could effectively make me bed-bound the entire day, and I will have to cancel a workshop and lose quite a lot of money. And as it gets closer to the 5th, things tend to get worse. 

“In the evenings, I can’t relax. I sit on the sofa with the TV on with noise cancelling headphones and just keeping my brain occupied. I find it quite hard to be present with my wife and my son.”

He could be up all night and in no fit state to drive the following day – meaning he is missing out on more work. “It is not uncommon that I basically have the shits for a few days after because of the sheer level of cortisone in my body,” he adds. 

Skander has an instinct to protect veterans from facing such traumatic experiences for months on end. “It is just madness, isn’t it? Everybody wears poppies. Everybody cares about the veterans. We are all so lucky that we’ve not experienced war but nobody has connected that these fireworks that you’re letting off sound exactly like war.”

Remembrance Day is approaching and then there is Christmas, times when people remember those they have lost and left behind.

“So many people with PTSD and military people end up homeless and losing their family and then moving into a new year, remembering and becoming very distressed,” Skander says. “And then they have this constant banging that they can’t predict.”

Bonfire night on Herne Hill, South London. Image: Unsplash

Skander is not attempting to ban fireworks or make people feel guilty. She just wants people to register their displays so people with PTSD can be properly equipped to cope. “I want people to know that fireworks do sound like war and it can affect people with PTSD quite badly. Why don’t we just give everybody a choice? If you register it, then you know that anybody in your area who suffers with PTSD can make a choice. You are actually empowering and respecting veterans.”

White agrees. “I don’t think it’s realistic to ban fireworks. I want my son to enjoy them when he’s old enough. But at the same time, is it realistic and is it kind to expect veterans and other people with PTSD to spend an entire month and into December and New Year on edge and unable to function? A lot of people really struggle with paranoia and depression.”

It is not just veterans who will be helped but refugees and others who have experienced trauma. “A negative reaction of fireworks goes beyond the military,” White says. “There’s so many people out there who have faced abuse or have faced traumatic events. They might have had an injury from fireworks or lost pets due to fireworks. These negative experiences impact these people just as much as a veteran who has been to war.”

You can register your fireworks display here and sign the petition here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Amy's Place: How a 'beautiful' housing project giving hope became Amy Winehouse's real legacy
Housing

Amy's Place: How a 'beautiful' housing project giving hope became Amy Winehouse's real legacy

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
Cost of living crisis

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

My cousin was killed in front of his six-year-old son. I need to get my family out of Gaza
Gaza/ Ahmed
Israel-Gaza war

My cousin was killed in front of his six-year-old son. I need to get my family out of Gaza

My family faced hell on earth in Gaza. Leaving was their only option for survival
gaza/ roba
Israel-Gaza war

My family faced hell on earth in Gaza. Leaving was their only option for survival

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know