Johnny Mercer is the prospective Conservative candidate for Plymouth Moorview.
Figures published last weekend state that almost 28,000 of our Armed Forces personnel have been diagnosed with mental health problems since 2007.
I left the Army a year ago. At the height of the insurgency in Afghanistan in 2010 and following my third tour of that country, my Commanding Officer stood up at my leaving do, and acclaimed me as “perhaps one of the most combat experienced Terminal Controllers in the Army today”. I know a thing or two about combat, and I know a thing or two about Combat Stress.
Our care of our veterans’ mental health is a stain on our nation. In 2012, more of our young men killed themselves than were killed in conflict. One of them, L/Sgt Dan Collins, with nowhere to turn, made a video message for his mum before hanging himself from a tree in a wet, ‘claggy’ Welsh forest where he had done his pre-deployment training. In his words, he had tried “all the help”, but to no avail. There are many like him, and while the official death toll of British lives lost in the Afghanistan conflict remains at 453, in reality is still climbing.
A great deal of work has been done by some stoic and gifted individuals on both treatment and identifying those at risk, but there is no joined-up, cognisant approach to looking after our veterans’ mental health. I have met Ministers, MPs, ‘specialists’ and others, and remain dejected at the response. It is time to change.
All too often, the first response is to look at the charitable sector, relying on those who feel veterans deserve better. This demonstrates a serious and fundamental misunderstanding on the duty owed by the nation to these young men and women. Whilst not having heard this from the Prime Minster, (who, in my personal experience with him whilst I was serving and since, gets it), I have heard this directly from MOD Ministers.
As one such veteran, I find it hard to understand why I should rely on charitable donations for my veterans’ care should I need it. I am not a bloody charity – I gave the best years of my life in defence of the nation, and the nation owes me the aftercare at least. Not the ordinary people of this country who have given so much, but the Government that made a political decision to commit us to conflict. I had no problem going, I signed up to what may be – I lost a lot of friends, and perhaps some of myself. But what we didn’t bargain for was a failure to ‘fight to the finish’ from our political masters.
Mental health is a hidden enemy. It hides away, and dare not speak its name. It would seem sometimes that the Government gets that, and allocates funding accordingly.
Veterans’ care needs to be built into a conflict’s plan; it must start being seen as a function of war – and crucially funded as such. Spending in Afghanistan has topped out at over £38 billion for the duration of the conflict. Veterans’ care figures are hard to come by, but however much it is, it wasn’t enough for L/Sgt Dan Collins and his brave comrades who, unable to cope, became victims of the war they could never leave behind.
What to do? Plenty. Implement the 2010 Murrison report in full; redefine the term ‘veteran’ (it’s madness to bestow it after just one day’s service – a third of those who leave each year do not finish basic training); better support military families – particularly those of reservists, who are more likely to suffer PTSD. But fundamentally what is needed is a shift in perceptions – that veterans are a ‘charity’ cause is insulting. They have given in service of the nation; the nation owes them in return. And if we can’t look after them when they come back, we shouldn’t send them in the first place.
I’m lucky; I am unaffected. Many many of my friends are, though – I will do whatever it takes to make the Government get this. This was my generation’s war; we gave our best years to it. Ministers are always too ready to be photographed Remembering and being seen to “show respect”. Some of us spend every day trying not to remember. Looking after our blokes and girls should come far higher up the priority list than public displays or sentiment. It’s time we got this right.