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'I don't forget': Memories of battles past stay forever with oldest veterans

Brendan Hoffman / for NBC News

Frank Stultz, a 91-year-old veteran of World War II, poses for a portrait at his home on Friday in New Carrollton, Md.

On the day America remembers lost heroes, the memories of many of those who survived combat remain forever laced with the harrowing sights, sounds and smells of war — recollections still crisp and vivid many decades after the fight.

For some, like Vietnam veteran John Hamilton, sensory triggers from past skirmishes can never be shaken, no matter how much he’d like to forget. When night falls, he sees the blackness as “a bad time, Charlie’s time,” a reference to his enemy 45 years ago, North Vietnamese communists. 

For others, like World War II veteran Frank Stultz, the close calls in the South Pacific are recollections he refuses to surrender. He can close his eyes and put himself back inside his turret aboard the USS Biloxi, a Navy light cruiser, nearly 70 years ago, as Kamikaze pilots buzz above and his hands vibrate from the shells he’s firing into the blue sky.

“I forget a lot of things, or so my wife tells me. But I don’t forget those things,” said Stultz, 91, from his home in New Carrollton, Md. “It was rough, in a way. I got through it. We did our job.”

Whether it's 20-something Afghanistan veterans scratching out the progression of 2011 firefights in the dirt or men more than four times their age recounting battles in the South Pacific from 1945, there are stark parallels in their tales — similar noises, scents and visions, kindred feelings and emotions. War has a way of getting tattooed onto the brains of troops, no matter the conflict or the era, scientists say.

John Hamilton/VFW

John Hamilton served as a Marine Corps rifleman from 1968 to 1970, including a tour of Vietnam. Today, he is Commander-in-Chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. At left, Hamilton in Vietnam where he earned a Purple Heart medal.

“There are commonalities with guys from World War II and Korea, or Afghanistan or Iraq, with what we saw and heard. They affect us all — forever. They affect your soul — forever,” said Hamilton, 62, a Marine rifleman from 1968 to 1970 who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam.

“To this day, if I’m walking through a city and see a tree line, I’m thinking: Don’t go that way; there are bad guys hiding there,” added Hamilton, who today heads the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Such permanent memories — and sensory triggers — are pure biology. The most indelible images usually are retained from our most horrific experiences or from our happiest days, said Dr. Sydney Savion, a Texas-based behavioral scientist and Air Force veteran who studies post-traumatic stress disorder.

The centerfold in our mental scrapbook is the amygdala, an almond-shaped portion of the brain tasked with processing unique moments into long-term memory and choosing which emotional events get stored away for good.

“When the brain experiences something, whether it’s beloved events or bad events, it assigns an emotional value to it. Those memories are imprinted,” Savion said.  

The most gruesome or most beautiful moments we experience cause the brain to become “awash with adrenaline,” she said. “That intensity over time, whether it’s graphic memories of the war or the birth of child, continues to self-perpetuate in memory.  

“In these combat instances — in part because the veterans' brains have assigned such a high emotional value to them, they just can’t ever get these experiences off of their minds.” 

Or, like nonagenarian Stultz, they simply don’t want to lose them.

Even if they were downright frightful.

There was the night be opened fire unknowingly on an American plane, which he was ordered to do because it was flying in from the direction of the enemy. A fellow sailor had to pound on Stultz's turret with a hammer to tell him to stop shooting. The plane and pilot were spared. 

Brendan Hoffman / for NBC News

A photo of Frank Stultz from his days in the U.S. Navy, as well as a diary he kept during World War II and a souvenir booklet from USS Biloxi, the ship on which he served.

There was the day a shell dropped from a plane onto the Biloxi’s fantail. It struck 50 feet from Stultz’s turret. But it was a dud. Stultz and his shipmates were saved.

There were days when Japanese suicide planes circled above, some hurtling down and crashing into nearby U.S. ships, including the USS West Virginia near Okinawa, killing four sailors. 

"I could see them from the parascope in my turret. We were just shooting, shooting, shooting. They were all around our ship. We were just trying to put a shell right in front of them so they would hit it," Stultz said. "It was a good education for me. But I was young. 

"When you're young, you don't worry about those things. I like to remember because we were taught to do the right thing and I think we did. If worst came to worst, well, that's the way it was."