13 Sep 10. There are twice as many military veterans in gaol as there are currently serving in Afghanistan. The year is 1996: Hugh is a soldier serving in the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Regiment searching for explosives in Bosnia. The car in front of him crashes and Hugh runs to administer first aid to the injured driver. The man he is helping produces a pistol that he pushes against Hugh’s skull. “Eff off back to England. We don’t want you here.”
Hugh drops the bandages and walks slowly back to his vehicle. “I was literally waiting for the back of my head and face to explode,” he says. That night Hugh breaks down and shortly afterwards he starts to suffer from nightmares.
His nightmares revisit the face of that man in Bosnia and seeing six people blown to pieces in a booby trapped car in Ulster. They mark the beginning of the end of Hugh’s military service but what help can he expect?
Hugh’s story above has been publicised in the media by psychiatrist Dr Max Pemberton to highlight the plight of Britain’s forgotten army.
“I read Dr Pemberton’s stories with great emotion,” said Tony Banks, an ex-paratrooper and campaigner for the services charity ‘Combat Stress’.
“Many thousands of men are left crippled by the mental scars of their combat service,” said Mr Banks, who served with 2 Para in the Falklands. “More and more the responsibility of supporting veterans is being shouldered by service charities like Combat Stress.
A MoD briefing paper leaked this week states that 5% of the Army’s strength is no longer fit for combat. Inevitably, as the war in Afghanistan continues, that figure will increase but the Army seems to be preparing to try and discharge medically unfit servicemen.
Dr Pemberton also described the experiences of James a Royal Artillery bombardier who was traumatised by events in the Gulf War.
Unfortunately, James sought solace in drugs and alcohol and he was in gaol within a year of his discharge.
James’s problems remained undiscovered in prison and he was still suffering from violent outbursts, aggression and night terrors when he was released.
“In the Army, you’re taught to be competitive; they bring the aggressiveness out in you. Then, suddenly, you’re supposed to be able to switch and forget all that and integrate into normal society without any problems,” he explained.
According to a survey published by the National Association of Probation Officers one in ten prisoners has served in the Armed Services.
“That means that there are actually twice as many service veterans within the justice system as there is serving in Afghanistan,” said Mr Banks. “As many as a quarter of veterans are discovered to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome but it can take time to be diagnosed. We find that on average, it takes 14 years for veterans to approach Combat Stress for help.”
“When we were looking for explosives, we were taught to smell for something like marzipan or freshly cut grass,” Hugh explains. “In hindsight, I see now that it was no coincidence that I would mow the lawn and then come in and have a blazing argument with my wife.”
Hugh now attends residential courses and support from Combat Stress. “They saved me from killing myself,” he says.
Combat Stress currently has a case load of 4,300 veterans, and has seen an increase of 66 per cent in new referrals since 2005. The youngest veteran is just 20 years old while the oldest is 103. Around three quarters suffer from PTSD while others have depression, alcohol and/or drug abuse, anxiety and phobic disorders.
“The human and financial cost of not supporting Combat Stress is immense,” said Mr Banks.