Persistence of Traumatic Memories in World War II Prisoners of War

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Abstract

OBJECTIVES:

To assess the long-term effects of the prisoner of war (POW) experience on U.S. World War II (WWII) veterans.

DESIGN:

Exploratory study.

SETTING:

Participants were recruited through the Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital; a POW reunion in Orlando, Florida; and the WWII veterans periodical, “The QUAN.”

PARTICIPANTS:

One hundred fifty-seven American military veterans who were former WWII POWs.

MEASURMENTS:

Participants completed a mailed survey describing their POW experiences, POW effects on subsequent psychological and physical well-being, and ways in which these experiences shaped major decisions in their lives.

RESULTS:

Participants from the European and Pacific theaters reported that their captivity during WWII affected their long-term emotional well-being. Both groups reported high rates of reflection, dreaming, and flashbacks pertaining to their POW experiences, but Pacific theater POWs did so at higher rates in the present than in the past. Large portions of both groups reported greater rumination on POW experiences after retirement. Finally, 16.6% of participants met the requirements of a current, clinical diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) based on the Mississippi PTSD scale, with PTSD rates in Pacific theater POWs (34%) three times those of European theater POWs (12%).

CONCLUSION:

Traumatic memories and clinical levels of PTSD persist for WWII POWs as long as 65 years after their captivity. Additionally, rumination about these experiences, including flashbacks and persistent nightmares, may increase after retirement, particularly for those held in the Pacific theater. These findings inform the current therapeutic needs of this elderly population and future generations of POWs from other military conflicts.

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