Every time a politician suggests a introducing a flag-waving British national day, the idea falls flat. We already have one: 11 November, Remembrance Day, where we remember our war dead and resolve to help the living. In my Daily Telegraph column today, I talk about how the government can better serve the tens of thousands who have come back from active service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Britain is, for the first time since the post-war years, a nation with a large veteran community. And we’re still not quite sure how to handle it. The Americans are: they had Vietnam, and learnt the hard way about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related conditions. In Britain, we worked out only recently that more Falklands veterans have committed suicide then died in the conflict. For the Gulf War, 48 died in battle and 183 have since either taken their own lives or died in incidents with an open verdict. Given that 192,000 served in Iraq or Afghanistan of which 50,000 saw active combat — and that combat stress patients can take up to 14 years to feel the effects — the implications are chilling. In America, 20 per cent of veterans are regarded as having PTSD. In Britain, the figure is 4 per cent. Either the Americans are five times as susceptible to this, or we haven’t yet got a handle on the size of our problem.
David Cameron cannot be faulted on this. On the Military Covenant, he’s kept his word. So did Liam Fox, a former army doctor himself. On day three of being Prime Minister, Cameron called Andrew Murrison — a RN veteran with a keen interest in forces welfare — and asked him to produce a report. He did (pdf), it’s now being implemented, in full and with urgency. So the problem isn’t political leadership: there’s plenty of it.
The problem is that Britain is still miles behind understanding the problem, and is still grappling with old fallacies. For example, the idea that Britain doesn’t need a US-style Veterans Affairs department because it has the good old NHS. As it turns out, GPs are hopeless at dealing with veterans. As you’d expect: they see one only every 16 months. It’s a tiny fraction of their workload. Combat Stress, the leading charity in this field which has worked with shell shock and its equivalent since 1919, says that only 5 per cent of its referrals come from the NHS. Even the Department of Health official in charge of military units describes GPs' response to veterans as “rubbish”. I can believe him. At the moment, the Americans and Dutch give their discharged soldiers proper health screening, looking for early signs of combat stress. In Britain, we do a questionnaire — better than before, but still not comprehensive. King’s College is producing research into this, but we’re at the question-asking phase.
The solution, I think, is for Britain to set up a Veterans Department with local branches which could be a one-stop shop for the 192,000 who recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq. It could contain housing information, health advice, put them in touch with the various charities (how’s that for the Big Society?) even help with employment. There are 250 amputees (advances in medical science mean that people who would once be lost in combat are now saved) and these people are fighters by instinct — many looking for work in a country with 2.5 million unemployed (probably rising to 3 million). I suspect plenty of companies would like to employ them.
I know some CoffeeHousers will have doubts about PTSD and Gulf War Syndrome, etc. I don’t share them. We have sent people into the fiercest fighting since the Korean war and know from American studies the effect that this has on soldiers who then go into civvy street. Cameron is as good as his word on this, but we’re still pretty far from where we need to be. Eight to ten years after coming home, thousands of men and women will still be fighting the Afghanistan war. This time, we can be there for them.