Landmines in the psyche triggered by age

July 11, 1997

They don't know, they don't know, they think it's crazy, 50 years, you should be all right now ... They ask you questions, they don't understandat all what anybody thinks or what they've been through."

G.D. Second world war veteran

Many second world war veterans still have severe psychological problems with their memories of the war. I have conducted in-depth interviews with 25 veterans as part of a much larger study. While previous research focused on the short-term effects of trauma, recent findings show that traumatic memories can affect people for a lifetime.

Many of the veterans I interviewed have only recently begun to experience problems with their traumatic memories. After the war they were told to forget about their experiences, and this is exactly what they did. Most had few problems while working and bringing up families. It is only since retirement that the memories have re-emerged.

Veterans cope with their memories in a number of ways. It is not surprising that many veterans try to avoid recollection. They were trained to respond automatically during the fighting, so they would not break down under the emotional stress. They were then told to forget about their experiences. One veteran, G.D, who was wounded and captured in Holland in 1944, interrogated by the Gestapo and held in a POW camp next to Belsen, said: "The wife and daughter knew nothing about being a prisoner of war and all that." Avoidance was a successful strategy for years: "When you're younger you're doing things all the time, you haven't got time to think." But not so as the veterans age: "I notice as you get older, memories get stronger and stronger for some reason."

Another veteran, M.T, used a vivid image for these traumatic memories: "I used to think what landmines have I tripped over now ... There's nothing to be seen but if you tread on the bugger it goes up."

B.W. was in Malaya when the Japanese invaded and experienced 42 months inside a Japanese POW camp. He successfully used avoidance for many years after the war, but: "Since I've retired I've had more time to think about the memories of the six years I gave, you know, and the three-and-a-half years in POW camps." He took tranquillisers before the interview, yet still broke down and cried. He described the scenes in the camps, the disease, the brutality of the Japanese, the schemes men used to survive, such as eating rice, regurgitating it, and eating it again to stave off hunger. He coped by thinking of the girlfriend he had left behind, who, he believes, gave him the strength to survive. He never doubted that she would be waiting for him after the war, though he was away five years. "It was the thought that she would be here, that she would be here when I came back." They are still married. Yet he has never told her what he went through.

The most effective form of coping with traumatic memories is to process them, to develop a narrative about the event, so making it meaningful. W.T., a Pole, experienced torture at the hands of the invading Russians, the threat of execution from his own side, 17 days adrift on a liferaft in mid-Atlantic, and then spent the rest of the war as a Spitfire pilot. After the war he experienced flashbacks. For years he had difficulty coping. Now, having gone over the event in his mind many times he "can tell the story of it but not relive the experience. It becomes memory, in consciousness. Unless something triggered me it is just a memory."

The story is still told with emotion, but W.T. is able to control that emotion, unlike G.D., who wakes every night sweating and shivering, having recurrent dreams about being captured. His wife wakes with him, gives him clean dry pyjamas, then can sleep again. This has happened every night since retirement.

These veterans all had severe traumatic experiences during the war. They were told to forget them. But they cannot forget. Under the right circumstances the memories will re-emerge, generating the intense emotion felt by the veterans during the war, the fear, the sorrow, the helplessness. They have not had the advantages that many traumatised individuals now get. There was no counselling, there was little compensation - ex-Far East POWs got Pounds 74 from the Japanese government in the 1950s - they have difficulty getting appropriate help now.

Veterans are, at a late stage of their lives, having to learn new ways of coping with their memories. For some this is made more difficult by official refusal to acknowledge that such problems exist. Many feel a deep bitterness about this neglect that can only exacerbate their psychological difficulties.

Nick Hunt is senior lecturer in the department of social sciences, Nottingham Trent University.

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