Andrew Murrison MD is MP for South West Wiltshire. A Royal Navy Surgeon
Commander and Consultant Occupational Physician before entering
Parliament in 2001, he was recalled in 2003 to serve as a battle group
MO in south-east Iraq.
Today, Armed Forces Day, will not be short of politicians emoting on
the national debt to our Service community. But those tempted to hold
forth on the military covenant whilst, for all practical purposes,
ignoring the human cost of service at the cutting edge of Britain’s
foreign policy should be shot.
No firing squad for David Cameron though: within hours of forming his
government he had ordered a review of the way in which we deal with
mental illness caused by combat.
Cameron’s interest is no whimsy. In 2008 he set up the Military
Covenant Commission under Frederick Forsyth. Last summer as Leader of
the Opposition he hosted a combat stress summit at Westminster. This
brainstorming session for military and mental health stakeholders now
sets the scene for work to be carried forward in office.
So it seems to me that there’s political will at the very highest level to do what’s right for our troops.
In general people in the Armed Forces are sound, physically and
mentally, and their good fortune continues into retirement. However,
there is a small but significant cadre that is without doubt badly
damaged by their service.
Being largely hidden, combat stress is easily ignored. But a grisly
thread links the accounts of shell-shocked Siegfried Sassoon, who lived
in my constituency, and the harrowing contemporary experience of
Johnson Beharry VC.
The military covenant demands that we give this sidelined group above all others our closest attention.
Too many suffer years of silent mental anguish before seeking help.
For others the effects are dramatic – domestic crisis, criminality,
homelessness, self harm and substance abuse. The tragedy of neglect is
doubled by the fact that combat stress can be treated relatively easily.
I salute the good intentions of previous veterans’ ministers. In
particular, I commend their attempts to ensure that our troops have the
mental resilience they need to withstand battle trauma. However, the
array of initiatives put in place in the dying days of the Labour
government will leave too many mentally scarred veterans undiscovered.
The cross-departmental review I have been asked to lead will put
recommendations on David Cameron’s desk by the time the House rises for
the summer. It is likely that I will propose a much more pro-active
approach to the mental health of our combat veterans.
Prevention is better than cure, but for as long as we engage in
combat our troops will pay a price, physically and mentally. In our
attempts at remediation we must make sure no-one is left behind.
Anything less is a betrayal of the military covenant.