800 British troops treated at the Priory

Flashbacks of atrocities haunt soldiers crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder on their return from Iraq
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The Independent Online

More than 1,541 soldiers who served in Iraq are suffering from psychiatric illnesses - with 800 personnel admitted to the Priory clinics in the past three years.

As British soldiers come under intense pressure from serving in an increasingly hostile environment, families of those personnel returning from Iraq have also been advised to look for "possible after effects".

The Ministry of Defence has given military families leaflets and presentations about the symptoms of combat-related post-traumatic disorder. Many soldiers returning from Iraq have suffered horrifying trauma after seeing their best friends killed in action and civilians hit by suicide bombs. Others have become withdrawn, erratic or depressed.

The mental health effects of Iraq are being taken so seriously that psychiatric centres to help soldiers deal with the stress of combat have now been established in Iraq by the Ministry of Defence. Ministers want soldiers to approach medical staff if they fear they are suffering from a mental health condition and have said that "no stigma should be attached to this". But some front-line soldiers complain that they have been accused of "whingeing" when they have admitted to trauma.

L/Cpl James Potrowski joined the Irish Guards at 18 and was in one the first units to be sent to Iraq's front line in 2003. On his return to the UK from active duty his mother and sister noticed that his behaviour was becoming strange and erratic. They sought help from the Army but they were constantly rebuffed, they say, even when they reported that their son was sleeping in the garden and was suffering horrifying flashbacks of a little Iraqi girl clinging to her father's dead body. After failing to gain help he insisted on trying to guard the house and stole firearms from his barracks. After a police raid he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

His mother, Deborah Higgins, said that she feels betrayed by the military.

"James went off to Iraq a normal lad. He was in Iraq for four months. He was in the front line. He had seen his best friend blasted to bits. When he came back to me he could not sleep; he was very snappy, and he had mood swings and blackouts. He was definitely suffering from post-traumatic stress.

"James was in turmoil. I was begging for help for my son but getting none," she said. "We were held under the Terrorism Act. He threatened to blow up the police station."

Experts in combat stress warn that the combination of coming under sustained fire and seeing civilians, including women and children killed on a daily basis, presents a lethal combination for soldiers' mental health.

Over the past three years the Ministry of Defence has spent almost £9m admitting soldiers to the Priory clinics, whose clients have included the Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and the models Kate Moss and Sophie Anderton. Figures obtained by Tim Loughton, the Conservatives' health spokesman, show that since 2003, 801 military patients have been admitted to the Priory clinics "for immediate in-patient treatment".

Others have been sent to the Priory for mental health assessments by trained psychiatric personnel.

The Government has also pumped £2.8m a year into mental health charities to fund support for troops suffering mental problems as a result of tours of duty.

Commodore Toby Elliott, chief executive of Combat Stress, the mental health society which runs courses for ex-military personnel, said the MoD was taking the psychiatric health of soldiers more seriously than ever before. But he warned that it can take years for the symptoms of stress to manifest themselves. "Soldiers grit their teeth or cope. The numbers will accumulate in time."

An MoD spokeswoman said last night that it had introduced pre- and post-deployment briefings for soldiers on how to deal with stress: "Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious and disabling condition, but one that can be treated."

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