Leading article: The invisible wounds of war

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The Independent Online

Paying tribute to servicemen who risk their lives for their country is a ritual that we British take very seriously. Nationwide celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain are coming to an end. Almost every week when Parliament is sitting, Prime Minister's Questions begins with a solemn tribute to the latest fatal casualties, heard in respectful silence.

The medical treatment of injured soldiers, notably at the military clinic in Selly Oak hospital, has improved dramatically in recent years, so that men are now being returned to civilian life after treatment for injuries that would certainly have been fatal in previous conflicts.

But there is an aspect of our attitude to war veterans that does us no credit as a nation. It is our treatment of those who come back without visible injuries, but who have witnessed such horrors that they find insuperable difficulties in re-adjusting to civilian life.

These psychological injuries are lasting. The symptoms may not show themselves for years. The charity Combat Stress, which launched a £30m fundraising appeal earlier this year, calculates that on average it takes a soldier 14 years from leaving the Army to stepping forward to seek help – if they seek help at all.

Some leave it too long. Our report today reveals that ex-veterans make up the biggest single professional group in prison. These men, who are mostly ex-army, are generally way above the average age of men who commit serious offences. More than half are over 45. Nearly a third are over 55, when less than a tenth of the prison population overall is over 50. When an ex-serviceman goes to prison, it is likely to be for something more serious than mere dishonesty. The crimes that veterans who have turned criminal typically commit are not theft, burglary or fraud. Two out of three committed sexual, violent, or drugs related crimes.

Given the scale and length of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this is a problem that will be with us for many more years, long after the last British soldier has left Helmand Province.

It is incumbent on our political leaders to ensure that the Army and health service do more to provide psychological support for members of our forces who have returned to Civvy Street. And as a society we need to show greater awareness that the wounds of war are often hidden from view.