Reservists from the armed forces suffering from psychiatric problems after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are to be offered official medical help, the Government announced in a major policy shift yesterday.
The Ministry of Defence has been accused of "abandoning" the reservists once they returned from Iraq. Most have been forced to depend on the tightly stretched resources of the National Health Service in civilian hospitals, and many have complained of not receiving little or no treatment. At least 1,333 soldiers returning from tours of duty in Iraq have suffered from mental health problems, according to MoD figures.
Following extensive lobbying by veterans' organisations, the under secretary of state for defence, Tom Watson, said yesterday that any reservist who had returned from serving overseas after January 2003 would, after all, be eligible for mental health care.
The government announcement came following the deaths of seven British service personnel in the past 10 days. The latest casualties were Ptes Joseva Lewaicei, 25, and Adam Morris, 19, who were killed by a roadside bomb in Basra. The extension of medical cover follows reports published yesterday which showed that reservists experienced more psychological problems than regular troops after Iraq service.
According to two studies, by specialists from King's College London, 4 per cent of the forces returning from Iraq had experienced post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This figure rose to 6 per cent among reservists.
One of the reports said this may be down to factors such as "...families and employers not understanding, not supporting their role in the military, the military life they join ... Possibly in roles for which they feel untrained. Furthermore, reservists might be exposed to wider public questioning of the war on their return."
Although reservists received the same type of care as regulars while deployed, the study also found "...reservist families did not have the same welfare services as did the families of regulars."
Military analysts pointed out that reservists suffering from psychological traumas had frequently been exposed to far more ferocious action than anticipated. More British reservists were used in Iraq than any previous conflict, and were sent after the "official" warfighting phase was believed to be over, and peacekeeping duties had begun. Instead, the Iraqi insurgency, now recognised as the "real war", began to gain momentum as they arrived.
The proportion of British troops suffering post-conflict mental health problems is significantly lower than in the United States, where the numbers suffering psychological problems, according to varying studies, has been estimated at between 20 and 30 per cent.
The US forces have faced far more hostile action in Sunni areas, compared to the British- controlled Shia south. They also tend to be younger and more inexperienced, while their tours of duty are normally of a year's duration, rather than the standard six months for British forces.
The British studies also concluded that there was no such thing as "Iraq war syndrome" of the type that followed the 1991 Gulf war. Professor Simon Wessley, who led one of the King's College teams, said: "Is there an Iraq war syndrome? The answer is no, not yet." However, acknowledging that it may be too soon to make a conclusive judgement, he added: "It would be a brave person who says it is going to stay that way."