A team of researchers, led by a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, has been studying characteristics of memory among World War II veterans.
The team is finding that these seniors have an unusual ability to remember their life stories, which may be a result of serving in that particular war.
For the last 20 years, neurolinguist and UT-Dallas Professor Hanna Ulatowska has been studying stories from Auschwitz concentration camp survivors, but over the last couple of years, she turned to another group of people who had stark experiences from that time: World War II veterans. She and her team of researchers have been studying the unusually vivid life memories of these veterans and their feelings of pride, gratitude and identity in telling their life stories.
"It was done as a semi-structured interview, asking veterans about personal experience of the war and their war evaluation," Ulatowska says.
She and her team found participants in places like independent and assisted living centers, adult day care centers and an aviation museum in Dallas. The study included 35 veterans, of which six have dementia.
"What struck me very much as a researcher is the extremely good memory, especially of the pilot veterans who actually remembered many details of their mission flights and they were extremely proud of it," she says.
They recently presented their research at the Gerontological Society of America’s conference in Washington, D.C., and Ulatowska will present her research in London this month.
Here in Austin, Les Selness leads a men’s discussion group three times a week at of AGE, or Austin Groups for the Elderly. He says one of the men in his group is a 98-year-old World War II veteran.
"He’s very proud," Selness says. "He wears all his pins on his cap that he wears every day."
He has a good memory, Selness adds. "He does remember quite a bit, but not just about the war. He likes to talk about other things, too," he says, chuckling.
That man identifies himself as Joe Berger, H Company, 125th Infantry, APO 32. Berger, who says he fought in Europe and Africa, says serving in the Army shaped who he became.
"Well I spent most of my life in combat, so that’s what it is," Berger says. "There was never such thing as going out and getting drunk. We had to be able to use our weapons in combat. Machine guns, mortars, rifles, grenades, gas, whatever. That’s what I did, and I did it very well, that’s why I’m still breathing."
Professor Ulatowska says she’s been struck by how even World War II veterans with dementia hold on to the pride they get from their involvement in the war, and how their experience has helped them maintain their identity, despite their memory loss.
"That this emotional memory allowed them to keep this event and the experience and share it with us," she says.
The researchers say this could be a result of how emotional, and sometimes traumatic, the war experience was for them. The team is looking for more World War II veterans in Texas to interview in 2015. She can be contacted at hanna [at] utdallas.edu.
This story was produced with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP.