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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 18:27 GMT 19:27 UK
Dealing with the war - 60 years on
The stresses of war have made a huge impact on John Munro's life
For thousands of veterans World War II never ended. For those soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, the nightmare continues, with some only now seeking treatment. Angus Crawford from BBC Radio 4's PM programme reports.

Polished and gleaming, there are nineteen medals on the wall of John Munro's living room in Gateshead, six from the war he wears with pride once a year, but it's the other 13 he treats as his greatest achievement.

They mark a total of more than 150 miles run for charity...a half marathon every year since he turned 64.

Since his wife died and he learnt to live alone, exercise has become his addiction.

"It keeps my mind from wandering" he says, "and it keeps the nightmares away." Nightmares which come to him more often when he's awake.

The torment of the past

Light streams into the sitting room of his bungalow, pictures of family history line the walls, but John Munro sees more than the neatly ordered tidiness around him.

I can see the flames now...and smell the petrol

WWII veteran John Munro
At times, other sights and sounds crowd in on his home, reaching across sixty years to torment him. "I can see the flames now...and smell the petrol", "and I can see that man, that officer with his skin hanging off him, asking for help."

For John Munro the war did not end in 1946 when he was demobbed. It lives on in his mind's eye.

In 1940 he joined the navy. "I wanted to do my bit...and I loved the sea," he admits. Two years later he was in West Africa. While recovering from malaria he delivered mail to the ships tied up in a harbour near Lagos. One day sabotage led to petrol swamping the moorings.

"Then the whole lot went up. There was an officer coming towards us...and the skin was hanging off his arms and legs. He asked me to give him a hand...and he asked me to put these pieces of bodies." He chokes and stops, brushes his eyes and forces himself to continue.

"Into these coal sacks, that's what I was ordered to do. I recognised one, just half a body.... and he was one of the ones I had to put in a coal sack. I used to take letters to him and I had taken a letter to him not 20 minutes before."

John Monro started drinking to avoid the nightmares
He shakes his head and apologises. It was an horrific incident which lasted moments, but it has stayed with him all his adult life.

Demobbed and married he looked forward to a new life ashore, but then in 1949 the nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks began.

"I turned to drink. I became an alcoholic, I know I shouldn't have done, but it was a way of avoiding the nightmares you see."

Suicide attempts

He began to avoid people and situations which triggered the attacks and ended up working on the light ships of Trinity house, lonely, isolated jobs. His condition became so bad he was invalided out, but not treated. His wife died and he found himself alone.

It took three suicide attempts before he found help. It came in the form of his friend and carer Eve and Combat Stress, the ex-services mental welfare society.

After six years of psychotherapy and twice yearly trips to Combat Stress' treatment centre Hollybush house in Scotland he says he can cope. His diagnosis? Post traumatic stress disorder brought on by his experiences 60 years ago.

Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Morgan O'Connell has seen an upsurge in World War II veterans coming to him suffering from PTSD.

"They're all getting older, they've gone into retirement or a key member of their family has died," he says.

"All of these impinging on their coping strategies. Some of them attempt to kill themselves, it is very rare to make a diagnosis of PTSD without making a secondary diagnosis of either alcoholism or depression."

"You can understand why. Some of these veterans see on TV terrible things happening again that they thought had been brought to a conclusion at the end of the war - just to see it all again must be very distressing for them and that provoked a lot of casualties coming forward."

There are still ex-serviceman out there in need of help

Dr Morgan O'Connell

I ask John Munro what difference this kind of treatment has made to his life.

"A great deal of difference," he says. "I was able to cope, I can't control the nightmares, but I can control the way I feel afterwards."

But he doubts his war will ever end.

"No. It'll never leave us, I know that... but that won't just apply to me, there'll be lots of men in the same position as me... bound to. You can't forget these things."

John Munro
"I can't control the nightmares"
Dr Morgan O'Connell
"Some of them attempt to kill themselves"
See also:

21 Sep 99 | World War II
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