If you happen to be the wrong side of forty, you will no doubt recall the start of the Falklands War, a conflict in a little corner of the world that few of us had even heard of. The tearful goodbyes were heavily covered by the media and many believed this was a war we were unlikely to win. Those of you too young to remember it first hand will have probably heard the story of Thatcher’s campaign in the South Atlantic in an attempt to protect the last remnants of the faded British Empire many, many miles away from these shores. Our victory, when it came, rocked the world and the resulting scenes of servicemen returning home to grinning family members were beamed around the globe. Our proud warships were hosed down by water cannons and shrouded in coloured smoke. Brass bands played patriotic music while wives, children and parents waved enthusiastically to loved ones.
Some of us may also be aware that 258 British servicemen died in that war and yet thirty years on – according to a statement in the Mail On Sunday – few realise that an estimated 264 Falklands veterans have since killed themselves. This plight was highlighted earlier this month when Charles Bruce, a former SAS officer who served in the Falklands, took his own life. Bruce was awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal in 1986 for actions in Northern Ireland and was a close friend of Frank Collins, another SAS man who killed himself in 1998. The question we need to ask ourselves is: why is this happening and how can we stop it?
Research cited in The Independent revealed that veterans aged 18-23 are three times more likely to take their own lives than their civilian counterparts, that 24 British soldiers died during the 1991 Gulf War but since then 169 veterans of that conflict have died from ‘intentional self-harm’. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, Kevan Jones, former Veterans Minister, then I don’t know what will. Jones was quoted by the Belfast Telegraph as saying: “We have made great progress, both in the treatment of mental health problems and in reducing the stigma associated with seeking help. I’m working with the NHS to make sure GPs are telling veterans about the support available, such as the six community mental health schemes we have set up specifically tailored for veterans.“
That snippet was posted on 15 July 2009. I can tell you here and now that, as a veteran who served for twenty years in the armed forces and fought in several theatres of war, I for one, haven’t heard a single word about this. Nor have many of the ex-military colleagues I’m in touch with. In the same feature David Hill, Director of Operations for the charity Combat Stress, points out that it takes an average of 14 years for veterans to ask for help with post-traumatic stress disorder. So what are the government doing about veterans suffering from broken marriages, failure to hold down relationships, jobs losses and homelessness; not to mention those suffering from PTSD, nightmares and constant sleepless nights? Very little, it seems.
But it’s not just British military personnel that are suffering. A feature on the World Socialist Website (4th Feb 2009: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/feb2009/suic-f04.shtml) states that more US troops are taking their own lives now than since their records began. In 2008 128 US army personnel and 41 marines killed themselves, while it’s estimated that 18 veterans of American wars kill themselves every single day.
The feature also quotes Army Secretary Pete Geren as saying ‘“we cannot tell you why the number of suicides was rising. It’s indisputable that it’s linked to stresses in soldiers caused by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” It makes for pretty grim reading.
We have to admit that one of the great things about the British military is the sense of pride they instil in their recruits. Yet could this pride be part of the overall problem? For when our brave soldiers leave the forces and sometimes find themselves in dire straits needing help, such an admission could be seen as a sign of weakness, or a failure of some kind, perhaps as a by product of that very pride given them by the armed forces. Consequently these brave souls are reluctant to seek help. But what if a letter about the issues they might find themselves facing were to come through their letter box, how many desperate hands would accept help at that point rather than actively seek it?
If The Independent report is right and those who join the forces are more likely to take their own lives than the average civilian, then surely this is an acknowledgement that there’s a need which requires addressing. Consequently, the MOD should have a duty of care with regard to it. Wastage, such as proven over-spend on military budgets, could be put to far better use – looking after those that gave their all for their country.
Help For Heroes is a highly commendable charity and provides a valuable support network for serving soldiers, but what of the veterans of ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Procedures need to be put into place, both for currently serving personnel and veterans alike. This should also be regularly followed up and many feel that a government provided system of care – other than the NHS – should be available for those who need it. We often call members of the armed forces our ‘heroes’. Surely if that’s the case then they shouldn’t be abandoned or forgotten.