Minister admits ‘embarrassing’ blunder over Afghanistan veteran suicide

‘Inaccurate’ to say ex-soldier took their own life over troop withdrawal, minister concedes

Adam Forrest
Monday 06 September 2021 09:28
'Know how much veterans are hurting': Armed Forces Minister on Afghanistan withdrawal

The government is investigating whether or not a veteran from the war in Afghanistan took their own life because they were distraught by the Taliban takeover, a defence minister said on Monday.

During a round of broadcast interviews, armed forces minister James Heappey told Sky News at least one veteran – dismayed by the fall of Kabul – had taken their life in recent days.

But the minister later admitted it had been “inaccurate” to say a former soldier had died by suicide because of the US-led withdrawal, and said the government was still looking into the possibility.

“We’ve had a number of reports that the thing I was referring to [on Sky News] was inaccurate,” Mr Heappey told BBC Breakfast. “We’re looking very, very carefully at whether or not it is true that someone has taken their own life in the last few days.”

Mr Heappey – who served in Afghanistan during his own time in the British Army – also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was “embarrassed” to have made the error.

He earlier told Sky News host Kay Burley that at least one veteran from the conflict had taken their own life “because of their feeling over the consequences of withdrawal”.

But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Mr Heappey had misspoken, and clarified that it had no confirmed suicide cases among Afghanistan veterans due to the recent withdrawal.

The Independent understands the ministry is investigating whether there was a recent suicide case involving someone who served in Afghanistan, but officials believe the department received a false report.

The junior defence minister said he is “very worried” about the mental health of veterans since the fall of Kabul, as he called on the public to support military charities.

“I’m very worried about the mental health my friends and former colleagues at his time,” Mr Heappey said. “That’s why the government, the nation, needs to put our arm round our veterans and tell them how proud we are of what they did.”

No 10 said Boris Johnson will announce on Monday an additional £5m to help military charities offering support on mental health issues to veterans with the aim of ensuring “no veteran’s request for help will go unanswered”.

Mr Johnson will also reiterate his pledge to use “every economic, political and diplomatic lever” to help the Afghans left behind by Britain as he defends his handling of the crisis to highly-critical MPs.

The prime minister will make a statement to the House of Commons on Monday afternoon when parliament returns from its summer recess to confront a potential humanitarian disaster in the making.

Mr Johnson will also use the Commons speech to thank the 150,000 British service men and women for their work in Afghanistan over the past two decades.

Mr Heappey, who reached the rank of major before entering politics, said he had heard that the Taliban was now in control of the whole of Afghanistan, but that the situation in Panjshir did not change “the big picture”.

The Taliban said on Monday they have taken control of Panjshir province north of Kabul, the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces in the country and the only province the Taliban had not seized during their blitz across Afghanistan last month.

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