Many traumatized UK soldiers feel abandoned by the society. That sense of alienation does not augur well, note experts.
As troops prepare to leave Iraq and up to 2,000 more troops are being earmarked for possible deployment to Afghanistan, psychiatrists and veterans' groups are warning of a "time bomb" of mental suffering. About 100,000 British armed service personnel have been deployed in Iraq, and the social impact of returning soldiers is also likely to be profound.
AdvertisementLance Sergeant Alec Webster, 33, who served in Afghanistan with the Territorial Army in 2001, was discharged three years ago and got a job in security when he was attacked by a burglar. "After that the anxiety attacks started. It's getting worse. I'm jumpy and on edge. It's like a loaded gun."
Mr Webster receives a war pension for a physical injury suffered in a Land Rover accident before 2005.
"I had to give up work a couple of years ago because I was so afraid I'd slap my supervisor," he said. "The NHS gives you medication and says get lost. I feel that the Ministry of Defence don't care. They take the attitude that when you finish your service it's all over."
A study in 2007 showed that soldiers sent to Afghanistan are nine times more likely to suffer from PTSD, and those sent to Iraq six times more vulnerable than personnel who had not served in the war zones.
"The guerrilla nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts means that veterans will find it difficult to differentiate between a safe environment and a dangerous one, even back home," Nikki Scheiner, a psychologist at the Traumatic Stress Service in St George's Hospital, South London, said. "There are no defined 'war zones' in modern battle. You're always in danger."
Depression and PTSD can lead to divorce, alcoholism and drug use. One in four personnel deployed overseas for more than 13 months had severe alcohol problems, research found.
Combat Stress, the charity set up to treat veterans with mental health problems, has reported a 53 per cent rise in GP referrals of veterans, with almost 1,200 cases last year. "On average veterans wait 14 years before seeking our help, and they often only do so after their lives have fallen apart," Robert Marsh, director of fundraising at the charity, said. "If even 5 per cent of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan develop mental health issues that would equate to thousands of people. We won't cope."
But it is not as if the Iraq or Afghan veterans alone feel ignored. Their counterparts from the Falklands days seem to be no better off.
Anthony Montgomery was a 21-year-old Royal Marine when he was ambushed by his own side on regular reconnaissance in the Falklands. Minutes later, he was trying to revive his friend who had been cut in half by British guns. "He died in my arms," the young soldier was to say later. But the incident was dealt with brusquely. "Back to business," the commander said the next day.
Two years on Mr Montgomery was discharged with deafness and asthma brought on by stress, having been offered no treatment for trauma. Outside the Army, he quickly developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His doctor said that they would go away. They didn't.
"The Government have been very slow to react," Mr Montgomery said. "I've got a war pension but I had to fight for it. Every stage was a battle. As opposed to saying, 'Well done, we'll look after you' they threw me on the scrapheap of society."
He added: "I couldn't handle any emotion or show any and my marriage became very numb. It took me 13 years to seek help. Now I still have the symptoms but I can cope."
Today, Mr Montgomery's health may never recover. His military career over, he cannot work, he suffers daily from nightmares and flashbacks so severe that he pictures his two sons fighting and dying alongside his comrades - even though they were born years after fighting ceased, writes Alexi Mostrous for the Times.
Although almost 4,000 military staff annually are found to have some form of mental disorder, in just over three years only 115 British personnel or veterans were compensated for the psychological injuries of war.
Under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme any soldier or veteran who can show a service-related mental disorder lasting at least six weeks is eligible for a £3,000 payout. Any serviceman or woman whose mental injury lasts for five years or more is entitled, in principle, to £23,100. However, those who receive permanent mental scars from war - injuries which often cause lifelong disablement - can receive only up to £48,875. A soldier who loses a foot is paid the same, even though he may not even be discharged. By contrast, a soldier who is blinded receives £402,500.
It is a fraught issue for the military, where the potential for psychological problems remains a taboo. "Most guys don't go and seek help," said former Sergeant Charles Brindley, 58, who has PTSD. "I didn't and nothing's changed. They still see it as a sign of weakness. Unless your leg's fallen off, you carry on."
One former soldier, who did not want to be named, said: "In these theatres you saw a sustained and highly intense conflict. Young soldiers feel at constant threat, from suicide bombs, mortars, the whole thing. That sort of conflict has to have an impact on your mental state which the Government is not taking seriously. To award £5,000 for a disease that could cost you your job for life is outrageous."
By comparison, prison officers regularly receive "six-figure payouts" for PTSD, the Prison Officers' Association said.
Walter Busuttil, medical director of Combat Stress - which is part-funded by the MoD - has warned that the NHS cannot cope with military trauma. But with the demise of psychiatric centres for the Forces, the NHS is the only option. "I have heard cases of ex-servicemen put in NHS group therapy sessions," he said. "When they have tried to talk about experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq, they have been told, 'You can't talk about those things. You'll traumatise other patients'."
Kevan Jones, Under Secretary of State for Defence, said that his department had "invested heavily". He added: "We now have mental health units throughout the UK, psychiatric nurses in theatre, and a trauma mentoring scheme to encourage personnel to understand symptoms."