Our army doesn't even care for its own

The budget for counselling soldiers with mental health problems on their return from this war is zero
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The Independent Online

For opponents of the invasion of Iraq, the fact that there is not, and has never been, any system for recording the Iraqi dead, speaks volumes about the American-led forces' contempt for those they think they are liberating. At the sharp end, it appears, this attitude is amplified by the acts of some members of the allied forces, who feel justified in torturing and murdering the captured and the wounded.

For opponents of the invasion of Iraq, the fact that there is not, and has never been, any system for recording the Iraqi dead, speaks volumes about the American-led forces' contempt for those they think they are liberating. At the sharp end, it appears, this attitude is amplified by the acts of some members of the allied forces, who feel justified in torturing and murdering the captured and the wounded.

In fact, though, the allies' critics flatter them in suggesting that the counting of their dead is a profound tribute to their service. Yes, it shows a disparity of respect for the dead that is obscene. But to see really how much these two wealthy, powerful nations value the lives of the men and women who risk their bodies and their minds in pursuit of their respective governments' foreign policies, examine instead the reluctance of both to count truthfully the extent of the damage done to the surviving victims of battle.

The man who perpetrated the act of brutality caught by an NBC cameraman that ended the life of a wounded insurgent is not a man who is likely to return home after the war to live a long and contented life. He has been dehumanised as thoroughly as those the world abhors for their own atrocities. Caught in the act, ironically enough, he has a better chance of having a mental illness diagnosed and treated than all those who will go home to find that the horrors they witnessed or perpetrated cannot be left behind.

Both the US and Britain have a long-standing tradition of publicly honouring and commemorating those who give their lives in combat. But the countries each have a similarly long-standing tradition of doing their best, more privately, to distance themselves from the suffering of the servicemen who lose their reason rather than their lives. It is a long time, for example, since the world came to understand that such a thing as "shell-shock" existed. Yet still there has been no apology from the Ministry of Defence for the fact that scores of teenagers who fought in the First World War were shot at dawn for "desertion" or "cowardice".

If this failure to recognise the mistakes of the past seems like a mere formality today, well, sadly it is not. The budget set aside to offer counselling to members of the armed forces who may suffer difficulties with mental health on their return to civilian life from this Gulf war, is zero. This is despite the fact that since the first Gulf war, 107 ex-combatants have committed suicide. (Just 24 died in actual combat). The story is similar for the Falklands war, with 264 Falklands veterans killing themselves - nine more than died in combat - and the tally is still rising by an estimated 10 each year.

The ongoing controversy over Gulf war syndrome is a case in point. Even the US government, finally, has recognised that it is useful and necessary to accept the existence of such a medical term. But the Ministry of Defence remains stubborn. Having refused to mount an official inquiry into Gulf war syndrome, the department also refused to co-operate with the independent inquiry that concluded yesterday that the syndrome did indeed exist. This refusal was so complete that all serving military and personnel officials were banned from giving evidence. Two US experts were also banned by the Pentagon from giving evidence, as the US did not want to seem unsupportive of its great military ally.

Yet this refusal to recognise Gulf war syndrome is widely understood to be mere semantic sophistry. No one argues that the term is anything more than a catch-all that describes a plethora of symptoms that are not unique to Gulf veterans but are much more prevalent among them.

Doctors may additionally debate whether those very real symptoms are the result of neurotoxins coming from varied sources in the Gulf or of psychological damage. But the fact is that this range of symptoms - from cancer and motor neurone disease to aching joints and headaches - is doubly as common among those who served in the Gulf as did not. By refusing to acknowledge this unhappy reality, the Ministry of Defence is deeply insulting the living victims of conflict.

We have to ask ourselves, since we are proud, surely, to consider ourselves as living in a welfare state, what is to be gained by the ministry from this astounding act of callous contempt. The ministry, of course, is afraid of having to foot the bill for the care of ex-servicemen. But why be afraid? After all, we are surely geared up as a society to care for the sick and the needy, whether they are veterans or not.

On the contrary, ex-servicemen, it has long been acknowledged, are among the most vulnerable members of British and US society. Whether it is Agatha Christie conjuring one of her feckless, pukka, war heroes who can't make things work on civvy street, or Sylvester Stallone racing through a redneck town to escape policemen who treat him like the enemy and bring on his flashbacks, images of former servicemen adrift are in no short supply. Their particular difficulties are part of the currency of our culture.

Nevertheless, the most recent figures from the Government suggest that 20,000 British ex-servicemen are sleeping rough, in hostels or in squats. The homeless charity Crisis argues that when those in temporary accommodation or living under the hospitality of friends or family are added, the figure is closer to 100,000. At any time, as well, 5,000 are in prison, while a large proportion have problems with relationship breakdown, and drug or alcohol problems.

Much of this inability to cope comes down to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the illness once known as shell shock. Almost a century ago, a group of veterans' wives founded the charity Combat Stress to help those who suffered from what was then a little-understood condition. Right now, the charity's only Scottish Centre, Hollybush House, near Ayr, is facing closure. This would be appalling enough, even if there were not such a high number of Scots serving in Iraq.

But what is more appalling is that the Government continues to refuse to set up any national centre for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, even though it is clear that the NHS does not at present have the expertise to deal with it, or indeed the ability to co-ordinate sufferers who need above all to be supported by others who have shared their terrors.

Part of the difficulty is that it it is easy, statistically, to minimise the problem of PTSD. Only about 20 service personnel are discharged each year with a diagnosis of PTSD. Many others do not get diagnosed for months, years or decades after their discharge, usually through the agency of the many, many charities that work tirelessly to plug this gaping gap in our welfare provision. Many others are never given the help they need to face and come to terms with their past experiences.

Within this context, it becomes clear that even if the Ministry of Defence does acknowledge Gulf war syndrome, it is going to continue to be as unhelpful as possible to individual veterans. The Government honours those who died in the line of duty with the offering of silence. The Governement stays silent when those who survived ask desperately for help. The allied forces may count their dead. But they do their best to persuade vulnerable survivors that their lives count for nothing.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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