James Wilson can't bring himself to talk about it. He can talk about growing up in New York and enlisting as an 18-year-old in the Army infantry. He can even talk about being discharged from the Army in 1945, getting married, moving to California, raising two children and working as an auto mechanic after the war.
But the Bakersfield man just won't, or can't, talk about his experiences fighting in North Africa, being taken prisoner by the Germans, being held in Italy, escaping, being alone and hiding for seven months as he searched for allied forces. In fact, just thinking about those years makes him grimace.
Wilson's wife, Mary, says he has been having flashbacks and nightmares about his war experiences. After years of sealing his memories tightly away, the pain of his war experiences is seeping to the surface.
Like most others who returned from the war, Wilson heard his nation's applause for a job well done. But he heard few offers of help.
In a document filed in support of his application for veterans benefits, Wilson reported that combat left him with ringing in his left ear from an explosion. He has constant pain from the damage done to his back and knees from German guards striking him with the butt of their rifles.
"When I received my discharge, I told the doc about my ear, my back and about my knees," Wilson wrote. "All he said was not to worry about that. I would be A-OK. [It] never happened."
During a recent interview, Wilson said he just sucked it up and moved on with his life. But now 87 years old, Wilson's health has further deteriorated. He relies on a walker for mobility.
He will talk about the affects of his physical injuries. His wife talks about the emotional damage.
Mary and James Wilson married in 1991. His first wife had died. His two grown children were living miles away. He was soon to retire from his job in the auto shop at Sears. An advertisement he placed for a pen pal attracted Mary's attention.
She was divorced. Her two children were grown. She was living in San Bernardino County and working as a medical transcriber in a hospital. The couple exchanged letters. Then they met. Wilson said it was "love at first sight."
"The good Lord sent her to me," he said, claiming they have never had an argument in their 18 years of marriage.
After moving to Bakersfield, Mary spotted a notice in The Californian that a local organization of former POWs was meeting. She urged her husband to attend, hoping he would find the support he needed to deal with his physical and emotional problems.
His fellow veterans encouraged him to file for VA benefits relating to his injuries. She said he also received emotional support from a group of men who understood what he had experienced in the war.
But unlike some of the veterans, Wilson said he could not talk about his experiences.
"I would leave the room when they started. I couldn't understand how they could talk about it like that," Wilson said. And he still can't.
Growing quiet when he was asked about it,Wilson would only respond that when his ship landed in North Africa, "I met the enemy. I'm not going to touch on the war. It's too hard.You will have to figure that out for yourself. I was in five major campaigns."
Wilson is not alone in not wanting to talk about his war experiences, but being haunted by them. Veterans Affairs psychologists report an increasing number of elderly veterans are being identified during clinic visits with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD estimates that 1 in 20 of the nation's 2.5 million surviving World War II vets may suffer from the disorder. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and emotional numbness. Information about PTSD can be found on www.ptsd.va.gov.
Some believe World War II veterans suppressed their memories while they pursued their careers and raised their families. But as they age, they lose their spouses, their health deteriorates and they have an abundance of time to dwell on the past.
Their coping mechanisms are being stripped away. Dementia, which robs the elderly of their short-term memories, while sharpening their long-term memories, also is a factor.
By studying and helping World War II veterans experiencing PTSD, veterans' advocates hope they will be better prepared to intervene with the aging veterans from wars in Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
"So many vets thought that if they didn't think about it, didn't talk about it, in time they'd get over it," VA psychologist Edgardo Padin-Rivera told The Cleveland Plain Dealer this summer. "A lot of what we get from them is that they've been suffering in silence for 60 years."
This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Nov. 8, 2009.