Iraq hero goes on the warpath

Victoria Cross holder condemns government failure to care for veterans suffering post-combat stress.

Exclusive,Terri Judd
Saturday 28 February 2009 01:00 GMT

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The Army's most decorated serving war hero has accused the Government of failing soldiers suffering from mental trauma resulting from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for twice saving the lives of colleagues in Iraq while under heavy rocket fire, told The Independent it was "disgraceful" that some veterans were struggling to receive treatment. He said the Government was relying on military charities to cover its own deficiencies and called on it to act to better help the growing number of his comrades suffering from severe combat stress, depression and mental breakdowns.

"These are people who have served this country," said Cpl Beharry, in his most outspoken interview since receiving the VC four years ago. "Why can't they get treatment? I don't think the Government is doing enough for soldiers. Those who are still serving get some form of help for combat stress but even those who are serving don't get enough support."

Cpl Beharry became the Army's most high-profile war hero when he was awarded the VC for "repeated extreme gallantry and unquestioned valour" for the two rescues "despite a harrowing weight of incoming fire".

Yesterday the 29-year-old, who is still a serving soldier, displayed the courage which earned him the country's highest honour by standing up for the thousands of servicemen and women who are still suffering from post-traumatic and combat stress, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a candid interview, Cpl Beharry broke his silence to reveal that almost five years after he suffered severe injuries saving his friends, he is still racked by mental anguish and excruciating pain. While he is aware he has received first-rate treatment, he has spoken out on behalf of less high-profile service personnel, criticising the fact that charities have been forced to step in where the Government has failed.

He described it as an outrage that former military personnel were forced to wait for NHS treatment: "I think it is disgraceful that an ex-serviceman or woman has to go to the NHS. The Government should have something in place for ex-servicemen and women."

In a week when four servicemen died in Afghanistan and as British troops prepare to pull out of Basra after six years, Cpl Beharry described the nightmares, mood swings and irrational rages that plagued many soldiers.

"It brings me back into the killing zone, to the explosion. When you hear a bang in Iraq you know it is going to be followed by something and back home you feel the same. You go tense, waiting. I go into that defence mode.

"I am learning to live with it. Everyone experiences combat stress differently. But we are all linked, we all suffer the same problem in different ways."

Serving with the 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment in Al Amarah in the summer of 2004, Cpl Beharry's unit came under fierce attack more than 800 times.

In the last three months of 2007 alone, 868 military personnel presented with a problem at the MoD's mental health departments and 69 were so severe they had to be admitted as inpatients. While just 43 were diagnosed as having full-blown post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hundreds more were deemed to have mood or adjustment disorders or depressive illnesses.

A report on the Ministry of Defence's Departments of Community Mental Health (DCMH) stated that there was a "significantly higher rate of PTSD among those deployed to the Iraq or Afghanistan theatres of operation".

The report stated: "[The findings] do not cover the full picture of all mental disorders in the UK armed forces. Personnel may have been seen in primary care who did not require, or wish, onward referral to the DCMHs."

Robert Marsh, a director of Combat Stress, the charity that offers a lifeline to thousands of veterans suffering from PTSD or associated conditions, said they had seen a 53 per cent increase in new veterans in the past three years. In the past year alone, they have treated 3,700 new veterans.

"Most people do not come forward for an average of 14 years after they have left the services so there is a problem storing up for the future," he said. "Combat Stress is working hard to reduce this time lag because by the time we see them they are on their uppers.

"To have someone like Johnson Beharry VC talking so candidly helps normalise this condition for other veterans and, we really hope, encourages them to come forward."

Defence minister Kevan Jones said: "We recognise mental illnesses as serious and disabling conditions but also ones that can be treated."

Psychiatric teams provided diagnosis and treatment during and after deployments but the provision of those teams was just one part of the Government's approach, he said.

The Government had also ensured support systems were in place to help non-medical staff spot those who might have been affected by traumatic events. "Decompression periods" in Cyprus also allowed personnel to begin to unwind, mentally and physically, after their operational tours.

"We are not complacent," Mr Jones said. The Government had commissioned mental health research into King's College London and expanded the medical assessment programme at St Thomas' Hospital to include assessment of veterans who had served in operations since 1982.

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