Falklands veterans braced for traumatic 30th anniversary

Tomorrow will reopen deep psychological wounds that survivors have been struggling to overcome

Hundreds of traumatised Falklands war veterans still need help to cope with psychological trauma 30 years after the conflict. Many of those fighting painful memories will have flashbacks tomorrow, triggered by a welter of TV and radio coverage of the 30th anniversary of the Argentinian invasion of "Las Malvinas".

A British taskforce of more than 100 ships and more than 10,000 personnel took the islands back after a war lasting 74 days – at a cost of 255 British lives. Many of those who came back physically unscathed bore psychological scars which have exacted a toll over the past three decades.

Spike Dunkin was just 19 when he served as an electrician on HMS Intrepid. While he escaped physical injury, the 49-year-old from Sidmouth, Devon, lives each day fearful of memories that he struggles to describe: "It's the noise, the constant stress, worry that it's going to be your last moment on earth, the smells, the fighting, just everything. Guns and missiles were going off all the time... Every time there was an air raid, it felt as if someone was holding a knife to your throat, whispering: 'This time I am going to kill you'."

What happened next scarred him for life. "The worst day was when HMS Sir Galahad got hit while the Welsh Guards were onboard." Forty-eight personnel died and more than 100 were badly burnt. Mr Dunkin's HMS Intrepid became a rallying point for the casualties.

"It was absolutely horrendous seeing all these poor blokes broken, burnt and damaged. I had five of them with me in my mess deck. We made them cups of tea and held cigarettes for them because their hands were burnt and they couldn't hold anything. We all felt so helpless and useless."

After the war, he started having nightmares: "I'd wet the bed. I couldn't sleep properly and felt low and depressed. I used to drink until I blacked out."

Mr Dunkin left the Royal Navy after 10 years, but found it hard to adjust. "I would only last a year in a job because I couldn't settle. I bottled everything up; I lost interest in things and always wanted to move on. My marriage then disintegrated."

He was ashamed to ask for help for more than 20 years but remembers relenting in 2004. "Within three minutes, I was in floods of tears and couldn't stop. It was the first time, sober, that I'd talked about the Falklands. I was so scared of going for an assessment because I thought they would put me into a straitjacket."

Mr Dunkin is one of many fighting the past. An estimated 300 Falklands veterans have killed themselves. And many are struggling with psychological wounds. Around 210 are being treated by the charity Combat Stress: 18 made their first contact with the organisation last year.

After eight years of support, Mr Dunkin has found stability. "I know my post-traumatic stress disorder will never go away, but I've learnt how to cope with it. I am now a lot more positive about things and I no longer drink. If I have nightmares and wet the bed, I accept that it's happened and do not judge myself so harshly."

He has remarried and works as an electrician. He counts himself lucky. "I do feel hopeful. I feel calmer and more settled than I ever have."

But he added: "If people think they may need help, they must ask... I've lost a few good friends to drink and drugs problems – ex-forces guys who've found that's the only way out."

Dr Walter Busuttil, director of medical services at Combat Stress, said: "This is a difficult time for Falklands vets – the anniversary brings it all back to them... This won't stop. The legacy is still alive."

www.combatstress.org.uk

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