James Jeffrey

Does the British government care about veterans’ suicides?

Does the British government care about veterans’ suicides?
(Photo: iStock)
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Ex-veterans minister Johnny Mercer appears to have launched a one-man frontal assault on the UK government. Rarely a day goes by when he isn’t voraciously criticising their shoddy treatment of veterans. Speaking as a veteran and ex-British Army officer like Mercer, I can’t say I blame him. One tour of Afghanistan was enough to break me. Mercer did three.

Mercer’s most recent broadside came after the news that the eleventh person from 2 Rifles, an infantry regiment that served in Iraq and Afghanistan, had killed himself.

‘That veterans who served in the bloodiest conflict this country has seen for 50 years are still taking their lives in 2021 because they cannot find help is a shocking stain on our nation,’ Mercer said after Andy Francis’ death. ‘Veterans’ care does exist but accessing it and navigating clear care pathways remain deeply challenging — impossible, I would suggest, for the poor souls who reach the levels of desperation we have seen this week.’

Many of the 11 soldiers from 2 Rifles who killed themselves had been diagnosed with PTSD or were suffering from severe mental health issues after leaving the army. 2 Rifles infantry battalion served in Iraq in 2006 and in Afghanistan in 2009, the same years I deployed to both countries. By 2006 the situation in southern Iraq was rapidly disintegrating with intensifying attacks and 2009 proved the deadliest year for British forces in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to adequately convey the hellish mayhem we witnessed in Helmand province. The Taliban’s buried improvised explosive devices proved horrifically effective. I remember a radio CASEVAC (casualty evacuation) call to extract a soldier caught in an explosion who lost all four limbs and was somehow still alive. He died before the helicopter reached his patrol. God knows what it was like for the soldiers with him and what they must remember.

Lt Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards battle group I was attached to, was torn in half by an improvised explosive device. The first commanding officer to be killed in action since the Falklands war, he had accompanied a convoy to visit troops with shattered morale during the disasters of Operation Panther’s Claw.

While Panther’s Claw was taking place, 2 Rifles were dealing with a separate hell up in Sangin, one of the deadliest places in Helmand. The Rifles, made up of 2 Rifles and four other regular battalions, ended up with the highest regimental death toll in Afghanistan, with 55 deaths. It is no wonder that so many of these veterans were haunted by their experiences when they returned home.

Recently I had counselling provided by the NHS’s Operation Courage: The Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Service after a number of personal incidents. I’ll be the first to emphasise that although my moral injury is characterised by some unpleasant shame and spiritual pain, it is not in the same ballpark as severe, psychologically crippling PTSD.

It’s estimated that around 250 British service personnel and veterans have killed themselves since 2017, though no one is sure of the exact number. The Ministry of Defence doesn’t track veterans’ suicides, like the US department of veterans affairs. Between 2005 and 2018, a staggering 89,100 veterans took their own lives in America – with around 17 US veterans committing suicide every day. The Australian government recently launched a royal commission into the rising tide of veterans’ suicides there. The UK has a similarly deadly problem. But little is being done about it.

We aren’t helped by the fact that the UK is the only Five Eyes nation (which includes the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) without a veterans’ minister in Cabinet. This minister is, in Mercer’s words, ‘crucial in pulling together all arms of government and making them work for veterans.’

Since I left the army in 2010, it’s been very hard to find evidence of any effective government coordination when it comes to veterans. I’m not convinced that much of the British public is actually that sincere about veterans’ issues either. When ‘concern’ is voiced by the government or the public, it is usually pure lip service.

‘We are pretty much the last country on Earth that continues to treat its veterans in such a way,’ Mercer says. ‘I fought with them and this break my heart.’

You and me both, Johnny. Though every cloud has a silver lining. I recently took possession of my veterans railcard, which offers ‘1/3 off peak rail fares’. Roger that.

‘This terrible disease is tearing through serving and ex-servicemen,’ says 54-year-old Si Donnelly, a former regimental sergeant major. His friend Mark, who served in Afghanistan in 2011, took his own life around the same time as that eleventh rifleman. ‘He suffered from PTSD for many years after a number of operational tours and then struggling on the outside.’ If we don’t do more to support veterans in this country, he won’t be last veteran to take his life.