Soldiers rally to VC hero's defence

Colonel Tim Collins joins chorus demanding more help for ex-servicemen

Terri Judd
Monday 02 March 2009 01:00

Fellow soldiers decorated for their service in the Iraq war have thrown their weight behind calls by Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC for more help for troops suffering from mental trauma. Their intervention came as it was revealed yesterday that young veterans of conflicts are three times more likely than civilians to kill themselves.

In a demonstration of the courage that earned him the Victoria Cross, the country's highest honour for bravery, L/Cpl Beharry used an interview in Saturday's Independent to reveal the mental anguish he still suffers five years after saving 30 comrades in acts

of "repeated extreme gallantry". He accused the Government of failing service personnel who suffer from combat stress and said it was disgraceful that some veterans were struggling to get treatment.

In a show of military solidarity, countless soldiers have praised the 29-year-old for raising the issue. Colonel Tim Collins, whose rousing eve of war speech made him a household name, said Britain should offer far more support for former soldiers.

Major Justin Featherstone, a fellow member of the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment who fought alongside L/Cpl Beharry in Iraq and was awarded the Military Cross, said: "Anyone prepared to stand up and say 'I have a problem' is showing considerably more bravery than anything they may have done in close combat. In the military we acknowledge that a mentally wounded soldier is no different from someone who has been shot or lost a leg. But there is still a public stigma and to at least try and illustrate the potential problems is very laudable."

Colonel Collins added that while the work of charities such as Combat Stress should be praised, they were filling a gap that should be plugged by the Government. "There is a broader issue of what we need to be doing, not only for those with mental illness and combat stress but also for those disabled as a result of injuries," said the former commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish.

He said Britain should be following the American example of offering far more support to those who had served their country, such as free education for veterans adjusting to civilian life.

Yesterday it was reported that suicide rates among Army, Royal Navy and RAF personnel have risen dramatically in recent years. In a Manchester University study, experts from its Suicide Prevention Centre found three times the number of troops between 20 and 24 kill themselves compared with civilians of the same age, and 19-year-olds were twice as likely to take their own lives.

The study, which analysed suicides between 1996 and 2005, makes shocking reading for a military largely made up of younger troops. And experts from Combat Stress have revealed that they have seen a 53 per cent increase in veterans with mental health problems in the last three years and, with most not presenting themselves for treatment for an average of 14 years, the country faces a major problem in the future after the brutality of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Veterans are currently offered treatment for mental health problems on the NHS but both Col Collins and Maj Featherstone echoed the general military view that civilian medics would struggle to relate to the problems of a traumatised soldier, who in turn would feel uncomfortable speaking to someone outside the military.

"Clearly the treatment has to be bespoke. You need to put soldiers with people who have been through it, understand it," said Maj Featherstone, calling on the Government to fund more research into the causes of combat stress and potential treatments.

The day after L/Cpl Beharry spoke out, the head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, commended his bravery in coming forward, adding: "Policy is that servicemen have a priority within the NHS and I hope NHS managers remind themselves of that."

The Defence minister, Kevan Jones, said: "We recognise mental illnesses as serious and disabling conditions but also ones that can be treated. Our psychiatric teams based in theatre provide the very best diagnosis and treatment of psychological illnesses during and after deployments." He added that other work included "decompression periods" to allow personnel to begin to mentally and physically unwind after an operational tour.

"The Government is waking up to the problem but too little too late," said the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman Nick Harvey. "What is needed is specialist mental health provision from people with an insight into the military experience."

"It is right and proper that L/Cpl Beharry spoke out," added a shadow Defence minister, Gerald Howarth. "I don't think anyone has grasped the bow wave of combat stress cases that are going to build up."

Case study: 'I was lashing out in my sleep'

By Ian Johnston

In 1996, former Scots Guardsman Graham Coakes decided he had had enough and attacked his hand with a saw, removing part of a finger.

It was an act partly prompted by the frustration of being unable to convince the authorities there was something seriously wrong with him. Since leaving the Army three years earlier, Mr Coakes, now 46, of Peterborough, suffered bouts of depression so bad that he became suicidal. His physical health has also seriously deteriorated.

He described the moment the problems came to a head. "I was quite bad and I had a breakdown. Things were just getting on top of me," he said. "I was waking up in the night and pushing the wife out of bed, but not knowing I'd done it. I was lashing out in my sleep."

While a psychiatrist who had treated US veterans of the Vietnam War concluded he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr Coakes said the Ministry of Defence has never accepted the diagnosis.

"I totally agree with what Johnson Beharry said about the treatment of veterans. Having gone through it myself, I know where he's coming from," he said.

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