Yesterday an e mail dropped into my inbox with the kind of incomprehensible title that could only emerge from the bowels of the Ministry of Defence.
Where would our Armed Forces be without their initials! I opened the missive up and downloaded the attachment and duly discovered a truly nasty little document. Once the writer had got all of his letters and initials in place at the top of the page, he wasted no time in announcing his intentions.
‘THE MENTAL HEALTH OF ARMED FORCES’ VETERANS
Over the past few months there has been a general drip of negative publicity about the mental state of Armed Forces’ veterans. Our research shows that the negative publicity and perception is unjustified.’
The writer’s mood isn’t exactly hard to fathom. He’s an angry man. He really hates all this wishy, washy tosh in the media about British squaddies failing to stiffen their upper lips and get on with things. Perish the thought! Stuff and nonsense. He goes on to explain that for the vast majority of personnel who leave the Armed Forces life is absolutely tip top and anyone who tries to claim otherwise is a limp wristed liberal at best and closet communist at worst.
Eventually he adopts a parade ground tone to let us know in no uncertain terms that rumours of PTSD and the like are grossly overstated.
‘The adverse outcomes (common mental health problems, unemployment, social isolation, encounters with the criminal justice system) present at a rate less than that in the general population.’
So there we are. All the stuff we have been hearing about guys having a tough time when they come home from
Iraq and is utter baloney. It’s
a wicked plot hatched by left wingers and ‘do gooder’ types who are hell bent
on having a pop at our heroic armed forces. Afghanistan
This isn’t the first time that I have heard this message rattled out. A couple of years ago I was invited to attend a Sub-Committee meeting up at the Scottish Parliament where the challenges facing veterans were discussed. The Military fielded their top doctor flanked with a couple Colonels to carry his bags. In a fierce tone he informed the room that incidences of PTSD in ex service personnel were in fact lower than in the general population. I cannot remember the exact figure he trotted out, but it was under 2.5%.
I raised my hand and raised the fact that recent figures released by the Pentagon had revealed that 30% of American troops returning from
were suffering from some kind of mental health problem. I asked if he could
maybe explain why there was such a vast disparity between our figure of under
2.5% and their figure of 30%. Did the fighting men of Afghanistan lack moral
fibre and backbone? Was this clear evidence of the fact that the world famous
British stiff upper lip was very much alive and kicking? America
If looks could have killed then I would certainly not be penning this blog. I was fixed with a murderous stare as the big man from the MOD fumed at the fact that I was not in uniform. Had I been in uniform, I dare say he would have shipped me off to Colchester Military Prison for a prolonged lesson in manners and respect. He left it to one of his wing men to field the question with a blizzard of goggledy-gook describing the different reporting techniques employed by the two armies.
Once upon a time the Americans shared our denial on this issue. They played the John Wayne card and claimed that only communist types suffered when they came home from war.
and the truth could be
hidden no more. Vietnam America was
forced to own up to the fact that many hundreds of thousands of its young men
had been mentally dismantled in the deadly jungles of South
PTSD is no longer a dark secret on the other side of the pond. They admit to it. They accept it. They treat it. They allocate resources: plenty of resources.
But what do they know? After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that the whole pack of them were our subjects. They are still a bunch of unwashed types who really should be under Colonial rule.
Here is another extract from the heart of the document
'GENERAL POPULATION. The majority of personnel do make a successful transition to civilian life, although a small percentage struggle.'
So there we are. The message is clear. ‘a small percentage struggle’. The inference could not be more clear. Obviously there are a few weak ones among us. The runts of the litter. The bad eggs. But not many, by Jove! Hardly any at all! This after all is the British Army and we simply won’t stand for anything different.
Has he considered how such a ridiculously bombastic statement will make a guy feel who is trying to get through night after night of nightmares and flashbacks? I dare say he hasn’t. I doubt if he cares.
Only one living British soldier wears the Victoria Cross. His name is Johnson Beharry and the heroism he displayed when he saved the lives of umpteen of his comrades in a vicious firefight in
frankly beggars belief. Once he was out of hospital and returned to duty, the
nightmares crawled all over him like an army of ants. In the end he could take
it no more and drove his car into a lamp post at high speed. Belatedly the
doctors diagnosed PTSD and treated him accordingly. At this point Johnson yet
again showed huge courage and called a press conference to tell the world of
his mental torment. Once again he was looking out for his comrades; thousands
and thousands of them who dreaded the onset of sleep. The Army were livid. They
wanted Johnson to be the handsome pin up boy of the recruitment posters. They
certainly didn’t want him as a mouthpiece for all those unable to leave the carnage
of their combat zones behind. Iraq
There has always been an unspoken rule that any soldier who complains about mental trauma is a weakling. A weak link. Any who report to the doctor whilst they still wear a uniform can expect to be ostracised from the group. All of a sudden they are an embarrassment. A leper. All of a sudden they get to eat on their own.
This is why Johnson Beharry presented such a problem. Nobody in their right mind could ever accuse Johnson Beharry of being weak.
At First Base we have run our Veterans Project for three years now. During that time we have helped out 150 local vets. Well over half have struggled with flashbacks and nightmares. The guys carry the haunting memories of fifty years worth of British war: the cold mayhem of Ulster in the 70’s and 80’s, the freezing mud of the Falklands, the high tech slaughter of Iraq 1, the psychotic murder of Bosnia, the backs against the wall nightmare of Iraq 2 and Helmand.
Believe me, these are not weak men and they are not a minority. Every one of them gave all they had to give. They were taken to the very darkest place of all human life where men kill and maim each other. And their brains have not been able to file away what they seen and done.
Every time I have sat with one of the guys as they have dredged up pictures of the bottom layers of hell, I have been reminded of the words whispered by the dying Kurtz first in ‘Heart of Darkness’ and then in ‘Apocalypse Now’
“The horror, the horror.”
The weapons may become more high tech, but the horror never changes. A ripped apart human body will always be a ripped apart human body. A lost comrade will always be a lost comrade. PTSD is often described as a completely normal reaction to a completely abnormal experience. This is why it seems utterly absurd to me for a claim to be made that soldiers returning from brutal combat zones are less likely to suffer PTSD than the rest of us who have never looked horror in the eye.
Over recent months I have stumbled on a couple revelations that have belatedly emerged from long secret MOD files. Long kept secrets grudgingly released.
In the depths of the First World War the British High Command became increasingly concerned that our frontline trenches seemed to be falling far to easily when the Germans launched an attack. The only way we seemed able to stop such assaults was by saturating the area with high explosive fired by our artillery.
Nobody seemed to know, so a secret investigation was set in motion. Every time a trench was overrun and then re-taken, the investigators would be first on the scene to examine the corpses. To the horror of the High Command, it turned out that 60% of the corpses had failed to fire their rifles. The guys had been lined up on the firing step of the trench staring out across No Man’s Land as a bunch of screaming Germans charged at them. It was the ultimate life or death situation. Kill or be killed. But even in such a dire situation, only 40% of them had been able to take aim at and pull the trigger. When it came down to it, they were incapable of looking a fellow human being in the eye and murdering them. Dropping a shell into an artillery piece was obviously a much easier thing to do.
In 1944 the British Army had two and a half million in uniform. However only 300,000 were front line troops. It has recently emerged that in the weeks and months after D Day only 200,000 of these soldiers were to be found in the front line. The other 100,000 had deserted. Hindsight has revealed that the vast majority of those who deserted were suffering from chronic PTSD.
A tiny majority?
I don’t think so.
The truth is that battle stress is as old as mankind. It part of the price we pay for our evolved brains. Wolves and lions and tigers never struggle with PTSD. They have never been taught about conscience and morality. They kill to eat. Easily. Without compunction.
We are different. And the fact that so many soldiers find it hard to live with the horrors they have seen is surely a good thing. Would we really want our soldiers to be indifferent to the pornographic carnage of the battlefield? A decent society would acknowledge this and bust a gut to give them the help they need. Instead the bean counters in the MOD are terrified that if they acknowledge the reality of PTSD, they will have to start writing compensation cheques. And that of course would mean less money in the pot to pay out all those lovely final salary pensions. We have been sending our young men to war for many hundreds of years more that the Americans. And yet they learnt how to do the right thing in two hundred years. We still haven’t come close and this nasty little letter is living, breathing proof.