Mary Wakefield

Lions betrayed by donkeys

When our boys come home, hundreds of them will end up on the street: Mary Wakefield talks to neglected victims of war

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Don't be silly,' said my learned Tory friend Bruce, leaning across a plate of foie gras and peering at me over the top of his glasses. 'It doesn't matter whether they find any weapons of mass destruction; the war on Iraq was justified because it was fun. Our boys were getting bored; they needed a bit of a gallop.'

It looked, from the newspaper photographs, as though Bruce might be right. Covered in tribal face-paint and with skulls daubed on their helmets, our boys and America's went whooping off in their tanks and planes. Cities fell, civilians looted, and patriots like Bruce knocked back a few bottles of port in celebration.

What happens to the heroes when they come home is a matter of less interest to military enthusiasts. It is a fact that hundreds of the squaddies whose progress we followed on 24-hour news channels will suffer trauma-related psychosis, and thousands will find life as a civilian so baffling and infuriating that they will end up homeless.

As a 35-year-old warrant officer in charge of a field surgical team in the Falklands, Michael Sterba had what Bruce would call a good long gallop. After landing on the beach in Ajax Bay in April 1982, he set up a makeshift hospital in an old freezer plant and started treating casualties. 'People were being blown to bits,' he says, his pale-blue eyes urgent. 'We had to deal with an awful lot of wounded Argentinians as well, but we were coping OK until suddenly, with no warning, four 1,000lb bombs hit the building. The place was filled with dust, confusion and body parts. The building was on fire and now contained an unexploded bomb. My animal instincts shouted at me, "Get out! Get out!", but my training kept me there. We went to work, operating on people, treating the wounded, all the while thinking, "Is this how it ends?"'

Michael and I are sitting opposite each other outside on a sunny afternoon at Tyrwhitt House, the Combat Stress treatment centre for ex-servicemen in Leatherhead. He has his elbows on his knees and is leaning forward, wanting me to understand. I watch the ducks molesting each other on the lawn. I can't really understand. It sounds like a movie to me.

After the Battle of Goose Green, a stint with 3rd Para ('mostly traumatic amputations'), and taking over the hospital in Port Stanley, Michael was sent home abruptly.

Home is where the fun starts: insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, breakdowns, amnesia, anger, alcoholism, and often the inability to hold down a job. Michael Sterba, himself a tough and clever man who had never before experienced a moment of mental instability, suffered paralysing depression, hair-loss, panic attacks; and he contemplated shooting himself. 'I have spent days wondering why this happened to me, and concluded that it's not that I'm particularly susceptible, it's just that there is a limited amount of horror that the human brain can absorb safely,' he says.

But even soldiers who do not have such dramatic symptoms often find it impossible to adjust to life after the army. 'It's difficult to keep a job because you become so angry with people,' says another Michael, a worried-looking thirtysomething. As he speaks, he carefully shades in the ears of a deer, copied from a wildlife magazine. 'You can't rely on anyone; employees don't do what you tell them to and everybody turns up late. Also, you feel different. For a start,' he says, looking around, anxiously, 'you know how to kill people.'

'You get in fights when you rejoin civilian life because you see men behaving in ways that are just wrong,' says Mick, who served for 22 years. 'If you fight, you lose your job or end up in prison.' Mick lives in the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation, which provides housing and counselling for ex-servicemen. 'Without work, you're in a situation where you're trying to live just on an army pension and pay rent. It isn't easy,' he says. 'A lot of the men become very bitter because the pension is only a fiver or so more than the dole. So they leave their flats and live on the streets.' Having been trained to survive in any environment, sleeping rough is a piece of cake for squaddies – but it becomes depressing and lonely. 'It takes away your self-esteem and a lot of men start to drink, just to take the edge off the nightmares,' says Mick.

For the sake of those who enjoy re-enacting old battles with tiny soldiers on their billiard tables, these are not problems confined to a few. One in four of the men you assume are junkies, sleeping in doorways around London, are former members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces. Last Remembrance Day, Mick heard that three of his old regimental friends had killed themselves.

Of the six men I spoke to – four at Combat Stress and two at the Oswald Stoll Foundation – not one of them feels anything but proud of having been in the military; they admire their regiments and the men who served with them. But all are bitter that, during the square-jawed recruitment talk about tough guys for tough jobs, no one warned them about life after the army. They are also furious about the lack of help or sympathy from the local council, the government or the Ministry of Defence. Firemen and policemen expect and receive psychiatric help. Soldiers who seek this sort of support will be discriminated against. If, after having nightmares or anxiety attacks, a serviceman makes the sensible decision to see an army counsellor, his commanding officer is informed. He then, by all accounts, has little chance of advancement through the ranks.

If, however, a soldier waits until he has left the army, there is even less help available. I shared a lift back from Tyrwhitt House with Jimmy, a small, cheerful man with a shaved head. A former member of the Special Forces, he is now doing battle with the Ministry of Defence. 'The MoD does the least it can to help you. Once you're out, they don't give a shit,' he says, grinning at me from the back seat. 'If you ask for help, they refer you to a panel of NHS psychiatrists who have never been in the military. This is useless because, to start with, a lot of the stuff that keeps me awake at night is classified. Secondly, it's very difficult for civilians to understand what we've seen and done. The panel I saw had this huge dossier of my history in front of them and their first question was: "Have you ever been involved in armed combat?"'

'We ask them to train and to risk their lives for us and then we won't take responsibility for them,' says Surgeon Captain Morgan O'Connell, chief consultant psychiatrist at Combat Stress. 'If you've lost an eye or a limb the MoD will do what they can. But if you need psychiatric help or have become homeless, they don't want to know. It's not just world war veterans. The men on peace-keeping missions regularly suffer. The soldiers in Ancient Greece had the same symptoms. Many of the men who have just come back from the Gulf will suffer. They just don't know it yet. We can't cure them, but we can provide support and teach them how to cope.'

Michael Sterba keeps his demons at bay by making picture frames. Charlie, at the Oswald Stoll Foundation, carves and polishes pieces of wood. James Marshall Bradley, a second world war gunner who went ashore in Normandy and a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, collects 'lovely things'.

'When I got back, I had great difficulty relating to the world,' he says, through a pair of immaculately clipped moustaches. A tape entitled The Massed Band of Her Majesty's Royal Marines sticks out of the pocket of his brown corduroy trousers. 'The nightmares were so real that it was as if it was happening all over again. It's not for everybody, but I discovered that lovely things – ornaments and pictures of nature that have nothing to do with killing – help keep the horror under control.'

Written byMary Wakefield

Mary Wakefield is commissioning editor of The Spectator.

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