The scandal of our traumatised troops

The brave words of the British Army's most decorated soldier describing the daily torment of combat stress touched thousands of readers last week. Today The Independent launches a campaign to provide proper mental care for our neglected veterans
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Two of the country's most senior military figures step forward today to back The Independent's campaign – led by Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC – for the Government to dramatically improve care for traumatised troops.

And, in an extraordinary show of military solidarity, the most recent commanding officer of 22 SAS, who cannot be named for security reasons, said that if the Government fails to act, it "will be judged in 10 years' time to be a disgraceful act of negligence".

His comments came as the former head of the army General Sir Mike Jackson and Lieutenant General Sir Freddie Viggers, who until last year was responsible for personnel, called for greater specialist care for soldiers with mental health problems.

A week after Lance Corporal Beharry, 29, demonstrated once again the bravery that earned him the country's highest honour for valour by speaking out on behalf of traumatised troops, The Independent is launching a campaign to get better treatment for soldiers suffering from combat stress.

The soldier, who served with the 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment in Iraq and was decorated with the Victoria Cross for "repeated extreme gallantry and unquestioned valour" for saving his comrades twice, came forward to admit that he was still wracked by the nightmares, mood swings and irrational rages that plague many soldiers.

His public claims that the Government was "disgracefully" failing those it sends to war has tapped into a well of emotion within the military. Civil servants at the MoD were initially angry about L/Cpl Beharry's outspoken comments, but high-profile commanders have lined up to support him.

Their message is simple. If the Government continues to desert the veterans who risked their lives in combat by failing to provide adequate mental health care, the country will face a timebomb of men and women with acute social and psychological problems. Specialist treatment needs to be available – rather than relying on an overstretched NHS staffed by civilians.

"You sit there and say I was on patrol and my best friend was shot or blown up and I had to pick up the pieces," L/Cpl Beharry told this newspaper yesterday. "Yes they [civilian doctors] may sympathise, but that's not what we want. They need to be properly trained to deal with people like us."

Pointing out that the Government had vowed to provide priority treatment for soldiers and their families, General Jackson said this did not appear to be happening. He said: "In one sense one can applaud the sentiment, but it is difficult to applaud the execution. It is very well the Government saying this is what we want to happen, but is it actually happening? The classic time for PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is a number of years later. We are going to have a problem."

He continued: "I recognise the difficulties of a Government strapped for cash. The Treasury has the view that if that is what defence wants, it can find the funding [itself]."

His comments were echoed by General Viggers, who recalled one Falklands veteran who had become so sick of having to re-explain his trauma to one NHS doctor after another that he tattooed PTSD on his wrist. "It is unrealistic to expect a primary care trust in a given region to begin to understand them unless we are going to train every GP in the country, which is impossible," said General Viggers. He added that troops needed a unit such as Headley Court, the military physical rehabilitation centre, to provide psychological trauma care. "It is somewhere they feel comfortable and it keeps them in the band of brothers so they don't have to go into a civilian waiting room with an awful lot of people who don't understand them and someone says something that is inappropriate."

He added: "There is good work going on, but there is no focus. There is a need for urgency here to be prepared for what is coming. The campaign on the home front needs to be on a front footing. What these soldiers do is just eye-watering and we as a nation owe them."

The SAS lieutenant colonel, who left the Army last year, revealed that until his tenure as commanding officer there had not even been any mental health provision for special forces troops, despite the acutely dangerous nature of their work. Calling them together, he had urged them to treat trauma as they would a physical injury, offering anonymous care. "We have to admit that irrespective of the good in the NHS, the terrific nature of doctors, it is illogical to think they can do for soldiers as well as soldiers deserve," he said. "We need a separate organisation with trained, experienced people."

Admitting that he had suffered some "strains" himself, the highly decorated officer said: "There is a life time commitment. The moment I was no longer in the Army, I was on my own, there wasn't any institutional military support for me."

Yesterday, L/Cpl Beharry revealed that he had been admonished for speaking out publicly without permission, but had received nothing but support from fellow soldiers. "It is difficult to talk about, to say I am suffering with this problem, and I can guarantee there are people out there worse than me who could do with help," he said. "What we would like to see as a start is a centre, a building with trained personnel to deal with people like us. This would be good as a start and hopefully it would grow."

Many in the Army have called for a dedicated specialist unit, whether as a standalone hospital or as an extension to the facilities provided by the charity Combat Stress or the physical rehabilitation centre at Headley Court.

David Hill, the director of operations at Combat Stress, said: "We are looking for greater multi-agency, multi-disciplinary collaboration, NHS and local authority commissioners and with the military, in order to seize the initiative and to meet the challenges head-on, together. The UK is seeing an explosion in military psychological trauma now; over the next five to 10 years it will certainly increase."

The Defence minister Kevan Jones insisted that the MoD was not complacent and said he had recently asked the Surgeon General to look at a way of tracking former service personnel in the NHS so staff know they are from the armed services. He insisted the six pilot projects providing community mental health care for troops were proving a great success and that he wanted to develop dedicated veteran mental health advocates.

Donations to Combat Stress – or tickets for its 90th-anniversary ball on 11 June – can be obtained from robert.marsh@combatstress.org.uk, or via combatstress.org.uk/

What our soldiers need

There is nothing new in the observation that troops exposed to the horrors of warfare can, on their return from deployment, suffer from agonising psychological conditions. In the First World War, it was termed "shell shock", but no systematic approach was made to treat it. Today, conditions ranging from depression to post- traumatic stress disorder are diagnosed in those who have served, but treatment still remains beyond their reach. It is the scars that cannot be seen that are the hardest to diagnose and take the longest time to heal. Our Government is shamefully ignoring them.

Last week, The Independent reported the experiences of Lance- Corporal Johnson Beharry VC, who is now convinced that our Government is "not doing enough" for those who suffer. This week, we report that concern about this unacceptable situation is not limited to the rank and file. Generals, including the former head of the Army, Sir Mike Jackson, have come forward to reinforce L/Cpl Beharry's comments. They confirm that support for their men remains elusive.

In part there has been a shirking of responsibility, not by commanding officers but by the Government. Neither the NHS nor the Ministry of Defence has taken a grip of the issue, falling as it does, between both their remits. But bureaucratic fog cannot any longer be a sufficient excuse for inaction.

So, today we recommend three simple reforms. First, more must be done to monitor the health of those who have served their country and left the Army. This is not a call for more bureaucracy but for GPs to be made aware of which patients have a military record.

Second, a dedicated specialist service must be designed to deal with the most severely traumatised troops. Family doctors are simply not equipped to give them the treatment they so urgently need.

Finally, the psychological effects of warfare can take decades to manifest. So veterans should be given the right to, at any time, return to their regiment for advice and gain access to that treatment.

Our soldiers commit their lives to our service; it is only fitting we offer them a lifetime commitment.

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