The findings have prompted calls for further studies in an effort to establish whether Britain faces a "ticking clock" of trauma victims from more recent conflicts including the Falklands and the Gulf War, adding to the long list of disabled servicemen.
Yesterday the Ministry of Defence rejected a new appeal for a public inquiry into the so-called Gulf War syndrome by the British Legion, which wants an investigation into why 3,000 servicemen became ill after the 1991 conflict with Iraq.
But the MoD refused, telling the Legion that it wants to help the victims by concentrating on its medical investigations rather than be distracted by a public inquiry.
The new research was conducted by Nottingham Trent University, which found that at least one in five ex-soldiers who fought in Europe, Africa or the Far East continues to suffer classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as nightmares, panic attacks and mood swings.
What surprised the researchers is that for many of the veterans the symptoms of psychological damage from the war have only just started to appear. For more than 40 years those questioned say they suffered few or no ill effects but as they have grown older they have found the memories, smells and images of war returning. For many, the 50th anniversaries of VE and VJ Day in 1995 and the surrounding publicity were a further trigger. "There is something permanent going on," said Dr Nigel Hunt, senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University. "People don't just forget about war. These thing do come back to haunt us."
For many veterans, retirement has provided a trigger for unpleasant memories. "After the war people were told to go away and forget about things and it wouldn't be a problem. That seemed to work for a lot of people for a while. People who have been living perfectly normal lives for 40 years have now retired and got more time to think about things. They now can't escape from reflecting on people who they killed or friends who died. These people are suffering intrusive images from particular events that are totally out of control."
Dr Hunt and Ian Robbins, a military psychologist in the Gulf War, interviewed 731 veterans for the study. They found that 140 suffered from some form of PTSD. The real figure among all war veterans may be even higher because many are reluctant to acknowledge their problems publicly. Symptoms include headaches caused by car headlights, which veterans liken to the flash of shells; others dream they are being chased by German soldiers who refuse to die when shot, while some have recurring images of the first death in battle they witnessed.
The research also found that almost all those who suffer from war trauma feel let down by the Government. "After what they did for their country they felt they should get something in return," said Dr Hunt. Former soldiers who were better educated had a greater chance of avoiding the worst symptoms because they would be more able to find strategies to deal with the problems. "One man who had to walk around Buchenwald deals with it by writing poems while others do the gardening or go for a walk - anything to push things out of their mind," said Dr Hunt.
Dr Hunt believes there is an urgent need to fund long-term studies into PTSD. "We now know the effects are likely to be permanent so we need to establish what the most effective method of debriefing is," he said. "Immediate debriefing after the event is useful for some but not so helpful for others."
The Royal British Legion supports the call. "It is vitally important that research continues," said Terry English, head of welfare for the Royal British Legion.Reuse content