Tories join campaign to help traumatised troops

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Urgent action must be taken to tackle the growing problem of troops with mental trauma, said the Shadow Defence Secretary as the Conservative Party joined the coalition campaigning for better care for the armed forces.

"The mental health problem will become a mental health crisis," warned Dr Liam Fox yesterday, because, he said, the armed forces were trying to maintain an operational tempo in Afghan-istan and Iraq for which they were under-manned and ill-resourced.

"The failure of quality provision for those with mental illness, military or civilian, in the United Kingdom, the world's fifth richest country, should make us feel ashamed," he said. "For all of the sacrifices made we owe it to our service members, our veterans and their families to ensure that they are well looked after. We are not a land fit for heroes. But we can be."

He called for a more proactive approach in caring for veterans who might be unwilling to admit to combat stress, pledging that the Conservatives would implement the US system of follow-up phone calls to assess trauma to all those who leave the armed forces. In his talk to the Conservative Women's Organisation, Dr Fox quoted Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, 29, who won the Victoria Cross and revealed his own combat-related stress to The Independent three weeks ago. Cpl Beharry's public claim that the Government was "disgracefully" failing those it sends to war has tapped into anger so acute – including among senior generals – that this newspaper launched a campaign to get better treatment for veterans.

Last night Dr Fox said: "It is great to see The Independent taking a lead on a subject which is of such profound importance but so often neglected in this country."

Support is building within the military, medical and political establishments that specialist treatment must be made available to servicemen and women to prevent deep social and psychological problems – rather than relying on an overstretched NHS staffed by civilians, who have no concept of living with the horrors of battle.

Dr Fox said: "Traumatised servicemen have particular needs that differ profoundly from those of general mental health patients. They must benefit from healthcare professionals who have a first-hand appreciation of the exceptional occupational context of their illness. Other countries appreciate this but we have lost our way."

A report in the British Medical Journal said that among troops serving 13 or more months in a war theatre, 5.2 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, 21.8 percent from psychological distress and 23.9 percent from severe alcohol problems.

Kevan Jones, the Minister for Veterans, said: "We have worked with the NHS to set up six community mental health pilots and a medical assessment programme at St Thomas' Hospital, London. Both schemes provide tailored care for veterans and gather information on the number experiencing problems."