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News Australian ABC Compass Tonight: "Those for whom the war is finally over"

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Those for whom the war is finally over

Geraldine Doogue finds that World War II veterans still fall victim to terrible memories, but there are ways of coping with this syndrome

August 12, 2006

THIS weekend, the eve of the 61st anniversary of Victory in the Pacific Day on August 15, will be full of memories for thousands of Australians, as it always is.

But some memories might only now be surfacing afresh, to either free or further entrap the men and women who were there at the time.

For all the books and discussions about war, the long-tail effect of memories about the experience has not been widely canvassed.

It took one caller's vivid story to the Radio National Life Matters talkback line, four years ago, to prove to me what a deep reservoir of untapped emotional narrative lay available within this country. Our topic was reflections on the New Guinea campaign 60 years on, plus related World War II anniversaries. Suddenly, one woman rang in to say that she worked at a nursing home where some of the old men were starting to display psychotic symptoms and that it had been a real shock.

Almost straight away, another woman phoned in considerable relief, realising she wasn't alone, saying her rather mild-mannered father had begun to behave oddly too, with allusions to the war six decades earlier. More followed with similar tales, by letter and email. And more still within the next week. It wasn't the intended angle, but an indelible impression was left on all the producers involved.

It fascinated me to such a degree that earlier this year I suggested a television exploration of the phenomenon to ABC's Compass. The result, Walking Wounded, airs tomorrow night. I doubt any viewer will emerge with dry eyes. The stoicism and pluck of the two Australian couples featured, classic examples of the World War II generation, are unforgettable.

They are just two of possibly thousands whose stories won't be told, if the psychiatrists are right. One, Richard Bonwick, is from the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne, where he's clinical director of the first older veterans psychiatry program, drawing on what had been learned from treating Vietnam veterans.

The two men featured on Compass, Max Dimmack and Cliff Hopper, say their lives have been turned around because of the program. In all, about 170 veterans have taken part but Bonwick believes thousands more might benefit.

"It seems a small number when you look at the percentages of possible post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers among World War II veterans out in the general community," he says. "Possibly up to 15 per cent suffer with PTSD and so many have not presented for help over the time. In late life, one of the things that often happens is people become physically slowed up or even physically disabled. And so they've got time to think, time to reflect on their past, reflect on their lives. And so often in that setting, many of the old issues will come to the fore."

Hopper, who spent seven years in the navy in the Pacific where he survived kamikaze attacks aboard HMAS Australia, believes one key contribution made by the Vietnam vets was their rejection of the classic masculine stiff upper lip. "They knew there was some damn thing wrong and they went to it the hospital, and full marks to them," he says. "Without them, I don't think so much would have happened."

Both men were very young during the war, saw dreadful scenes, heard and smelled terrible things. On their return home, they were told not to talk about their experiences. They were profoundly changed men but received no assistance to deal with their psychological needs.

The memories aren't predictable, either. Dimmack, for instance, who served in the army in New Guinea and Borneo, felt shame for almost six decades for not intervening when a colleague, then a mate, raped a local woman, a young mother with a baby in her arms.

Back home, the wives and families were left to cope. The solid, durable love displayed by Peg Dimmack and Marie Hopping is exemplary. They're smiling now, amazed at their men's new-found serenity. But as Cliff puts it so beautifully: "I wouldn't have stayed married to me. And I think she was the glue that held the family together really."

His son Don puts it this way: "I think the problem or the issue for Dad was that he was 18 to 24. And this all happened at that age and, in a sense, that's where he was locked into. I mean he talks now of being buried at sea."

Bonwick says by the mid-1990s more and more veterans of World War II, men by now in their 70s, were presenting with similar problems. Almost one million Australians served, many of them barely out of their teens.

They're helped to realise they're not alone; the avoided experiences are articulated, if at all possible, and the men (and by default their grateful wives) are introduced to the wonders of pharmacological advances in treating PTSD and related conditions.

For these men and their families, there are no miracles to remove the memories. But you could say their war is now finally over.

Compass, presented by Geraldine Doogue, airs nationally on ABC TV at 10.10pm tomorrow.
Yer... I think that is another name for the now National PTSD Program. People keep thinking that trauma is just going to go away, and even when they do come to terms with it, that it won't popup every now and then for a look.
Just watched it - well done but more should have been said about the absolute AND CONTINUING lack of interest by the Fed & state Gov's on this swept under the carpet major illness ..

How much longer???
Speak out we must


I spoke out to the media on National Public Radio in the US about what government says they are doing to help soldiers with PTSD and what they are actually doing.

Speak out we must and demand accountability from those who say they represent us. We the people make the rules, not the other way around.

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