The Army's duty of care to its soldiers

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The Independent Online

The testimony of the soldiers of the 22nd Cheshire Regiment regarding their difficulties in adjusting to normal life after returning from a six-month operation in Iraq ought to be studied carefully by the Ministry of Defence. Some soldiers have encountered problems in relating to their families. Others describe the transition as going from "excessive violence to nothing". There have been instances of heavy drinking and domestic violence. It is clear from their comments that readjusting to a normal environment is a mission in itself.

The testimony of the soldiers of the 22nd Cheshire Regiment regarding their difficulties in adjusting to normal life after returning from a six-month operation in Iraq ought to be studied carefully by the Ministry of Defence. Some soldiers have encountered problems in relating to their families. Others describe the transition as going from "excessive violence to nothing". There have been instances of heavy drinking and domestic violence. It is clear from their comments that readjusting to a normal environment is a mission in itself.

Compared with other regiments, the Cheshires have not been afflicted disproportionately by psychological problems. Only a small number of them sought psychiatric help. But the problems that the regiment has experienced demonstrate just how crucial it is to offer counselling to servicemen when they return from active duty. It is folly to assume they will all slip seamlessly back into regular life.

This week public attention has focused on the restructuring of the Army and a reduction in the number of infantry battalions, a process which will see the soldiers of the 22nd Cheshires joining a new "super regiment". It is a moot point whether this will make the Army a more effective fighting force. But one thing is guaranteed to impair the effectiveness of the armed forces and that is the continuing failure of the Government to gets to grips with the rising levels of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers.

The Army's Defence Medical Services, which treats those suffering from combat-related psychological injuries, have become more effective in recent years but there is considerable room for improvement. Many servicemen are still not diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder for months, or even years, after symptoms appear.

That's if they are diagnosed at all. Psychological damage often does not come to light until soldiers have been discharged. Since the first Gulf War 107 ex-combatants have committed suicide. While these tragic deaths do not directly effect the military's effectiveness, the Army clearly has a duty of care towards its ex-servicemen. And it is a duty that the Army is often all too keen to shirk. There is still a resistance among senior officers to accepting that counselling can lessen the psychological damage that combat operations often inflict. The Army must recognise that its most important assets are the men and women who serve, and that it pays to look after them properly.

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