Plight of traumatised soldiers 'ignored by Government'

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Indy Politics

Those charged with caring for military personnel returning from tours of duty have warned of a dramatic increase in servicemen and women needing help because of the traumatic nature of their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The issue was highlighted when Tony Blair had to face a former lance-corporal in the Coldstream Guards who felt that he had been "abandoned" after coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder from his second tour of Iraq.

Justin Smith, 32, told the Prime Minister during a debate on ITV's Westcountry Live programme: "I have lost my house, my security and any self-belief," adding: "Now I'm living in temporary accommodation that is forcing me to go to work rather than concentrate on getting better, and I want to know what the Government is going to do." Mr Blair promised to look into the situation, insisting that there was supposed to be adequate provision for those who are medically discharged.

But last night another veteran, John Pentreath, of the Royal British Legion, accused the Government of "shutting the door" on those needing help after serving their country. He said: "I don't expect the Government to carry out their duty of care to people like Justin. They will just say that, once he's a civilian, there is the NHS."

But the leading charity in the area, Combat Stress, and the new British Armed Forces Federation say it is inappropriate to treat men and women with battle stress among civilians, and that military hospitals are needed.

Robert Marsh, of Combat Stress, said they already have 8,000 veterans on their books and will soon struggle to cope with mounting numbers. Last year, they had a 26 per cent increase and many do not present themselves for at least a decade.

"We are really busy. We have seen over 120 veterans of Iraq but we consider that is just the bow wave of what we are likely to see in the future. And, with fatalities in Afghanistan higher, we can expect the same. We are storing up a bit of shocker," he said.

Treatment of physically and mentally wounded soldiers has become a long-term thorn in the Prime Minister's side as an increasing number of high-profile figures have accused the Government of breaking the covenant with the military and failing in its duty of care.

The issue flared up again yesterday as Mr Blair promised to improve conditions for the armed forces and admitted soldiers deserved better. But he insisted that Britain must maintain its status as a major defence power and warned against any retreat from fighting wars.

Speaking aboard HMS Albion in Plymouth, he said that military might was essential to winning the war on terror as he tried to rally increasingly sceptical troops. But he acknowledged that the covenant with the forces had to be renewed as soldiers were asked to undertake unprecedented challenges.

"For our part, in Government, it will mean increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces - not in the short run, but for the long term," he said, adding: "On the part of the military, they need to accept that in a volunteer armed force, conflict and casualty may be part of what they are called upon to face."

Yet Mr Marsh insisted that treating returning service personnel in NHS hospitals was inadequate as often they found it difficult to discuss the trauma generated by combat with civilians. The last psychiatric military hospital closed in 1999. In 2001 a review found there were not enough military acute in-patient psychiatric cases to justify a unit and the Government found it more cost-effective to offer private care at the Priory, a clinic known for taking on celebrities.

"In an ideal world military people would be treated in military hospitals and veterans should be treated in veterans' institutions. We are the only Western nation that does not do that. If you look at the Americans, they almost get treatment from cradle to grave," said Mr Marsh.

Douglas Young, chairman of the British Armed Forces Federation, agreed: "In the NHS, with the best will in the world, any sort of group therapy would be with people with completely different problems. If you are already finding it horrendously difficult to try and explain problems that arise from battle, with respect you are not going to get much help from an alcoholic."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said that under two per cent of servicemen and women had developed PTSD but the department was aware that it was a condition with delayed symptoms and continued to fund research into the problem.

Life in the modern army

* PAY AND ALLOWANCES

Pay remains a constant source of conflict within the military. Several soldiers told the Prime Minister during a visit to Afghanistan last year that a basic marine, who is paid a little more than £12,000, could have earned double that in the fire service.

* RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION

Levels of recruitment are in trouble and retention rates are plummeting. Last year more than 12,700 recruits joined up, but almost 14,500 personnel left. The MoD has dismissed claims of a recruitment crisis as a "myth".

* MENTAL ILLNESS

MoD figures show that 1,897 soldiers have returned from Iraq with mental health problems, of whom 278 have post-traumatic stress disorder. Others suffer depression or acute anxiety, or turn to drink and drugs.

* EQUIPMENT

The standard-issue rifle, the SA80 A2, has been dogged by problems, particularly when salt water and sand interfere with its mechanism. It has been upgraded but the complaints persist.

* VEHICLES

A quarter of British soldiers killed by hostile action in Iraq were travelling in "snatch" Land Rovers - vehicles designed for use in Northern Ireland rather than the arid conditions of Afghanistan and Iraq. They are bullet-proof but provide no protection from improvised roadside bombs.

* ACCOMMODATION

The outgoing head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, said last month that the accommodation of some forces was "frankly shaming". The mother of a young soldier e-mailed photographs to the BBC of leaking plumbing and mildewed furniture. She said: "We treat prisoners better than our soldiers."

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