Thursday 8 July 2010


The UK's armed forces have not been much out of the news over the last few years because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the violence ceased in Northern Ireland you might have hoped for a period when British troops would have been out of danger but these other conflicts seemed inexorably to fill the gap. As well as the stark and very public tragedy of deaths in battle there is another legacy of service life which is not much talked about, that is the damage which is evidently done to many servicemen and women’s mental health.

Statistics are hard to come by and there seems to be some reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Defence to come up with the figures. An important indicator is the number of veterans who end up in the criminal justice system because their lives have fallen apart after leaving the armed forces. UK armed forces only number 180,000 and yet up to 10% of the 85,000 prisoners in England and Wales are veterans and many more are in the criminal justice system. It is difficult to assess the mental health problems of veterans but one sad statistic is that more Falklands veterans have committed suicide than the number who died in the conflict itself.

It must also be assumed that Wales has a substantially greater problem than elsewhere in the UK: 5% of the UK population lives here but about 11% of the armed forces are recruited from Wales. Elfyn Llwyd MP, chair of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, says of veterans "Unfortunately, far too many become completely cut off from society and end up in prison, probation or on parole. Some of these young people have been to hell and back and it is our responsibility to help them. Clearly, we are not spending enough time preparing our soldiers for life when they leave. More help needs to be available as a matter of course both during and immediately after active combat, regardless of whether they ask for this help." Read more via this link.

Hafal has experience of assisting veterans with serious mental illness in our services and also employs a high proportion of ex-service personnel. The consensus seems to be that the factors which make service personnel prone to mental health problems are not straightforward. There is certainly evidence that combat itself can traumatise individuals but there are also other important factors including the “work hard play hard” culture (supported by cheap alcohol) and the deliberate encouragement of dependency on teamwork which may be useful for military discipline but means that many veterans find that they cannot manage their lives independently.

I would not hold out too much hope of the Forces themselves addressing these problems. Unfortunately the public is quite starry-eyed about the British military believing it is "one thing we do well". However, those with first hand experience know that alongside much professionalism and selfless courage there is a long history of startling incompetence in the management of the armed forces. My late father visited Germany just before the war and witnessed the impressive militarisation of the Nazi state. A couple of years later in 1940 he found himself in the Royal Welch Fusiliers defending the south coast from the vantage point of Ditchling Beacon having been issued with five rounds of ammunition and seeing around him amateurish and bungling officers devoid of all common sense. Indeed he contributed to the general chaos on one occasion leading an entire motorised brigade on manoevres into a farm-yard through faulty map-reading. Thank heavens for the English Channel.