Iraq veterans need more psychiatric help, says judge

Trauma from experiences in conflict can last a lifetime
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The Independent Online

Soldiers returning home from service in Iraq must be given more psychiatric help before being allowed to socialise with the public, a judge said yesterday, after a lance-corporal suffering from post-traumatic stress fractured a man's skull and left him fighting for his life.

L/Cpl James Savage spent six months on a tour of duty in Iraq last year during which his best friend died in his arms while he was giving him the kiss of life. He also witnessed his superior officer being blown up during an attack by insurgents.But just days after he had requested medical help to deal with the psychological effects of his experiences, he was allowed to leave his barracks to celebrate his end of tour.

Judge Tonking, sitting at Stafford Crown Court, warned that many combat soldiers returning home in similar conditions may present a danger to the public.

He told the soldier: "You returned from Iraq via Cyprus where you had asked for psychiatric help because of the horrific things you had seen and, within a matter of days, you were able to go out onto the streets of Burton, drink as much as you like and be in a position where you would react in the way you did."

The court heard how Savage took offence at a comment made by a woman about his drunken behaviour and punched her boyfriend in the face. Philip Collins's head hit the pub's concrete patio. He was taken to hospital in a coma and later underwent emergency brain surgery.

Savage, 23, from Winshill, who admitted a charge of inflicting grievous bodily harm was sentenced to a 18-month community order, with 200 hours unpaid work. He was also ordered to pay Mr Collins £3,000 compensation.

The court heard that Savage was still in a "war mentality" state when he went out celebrate.

Judge Tonking said: "Those who serve in the armed forces don't have a carte blanche to return to this country and be violent to members of the public.

"On the other hand, those who serve in the armed forces do a job that members of the public can't begin to understand, in terms of the experiences they go through and the horrific scenes with which they have to deal."

Savage is one of a small, but growing number, of soldiers who have committed violent crimes while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

From the start of the conflict in Iraq in 2003 to December last year, 1,541 service personnel have received treatment for mental health conditions, 208 of which have been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, according to figures released by the Ministry of Defence.

It is estimated that the criminal courts have sentenced about a dozen soldiers for violence and drugs offences committed while suffering post-traumatic stress.

Judge Tonking told Savage: "I am not here to criticise you or the authorities but it ought to be recognised that when those who have been serving abroad in situations of combat return home, there needs to be a period of re-acclimatisation when coming back to the civilised world."

The judge added: "You were still hyper-reactive, those are conditions which in combat are necessary but on the streets of provincial towns in England they are dangerous."

Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, occurs when a person has experienced, witnessed or been confronted with a terrible event that has actually occurred. Alternatively, the person may have been threatened with a terrible event. The person's response involves intense fear, helplessness, and/or horror.

The concept of an illness with a common range of symptoms to PTSD has only been accepted by medical science in the past hundred years. During the First World War, PTSD was called shell shock and during the Second World War it was referred to as combat fatigue.

Marcus Roberts, head of policy at mental health charity Mind, said: "The disturbing experiences that soldiers will go through during conflict can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, sleeping problems and panic attacks. It's tough not just for the individuals but also for their friends and family."