Spare a thought for Britain’s veterans left to battle their demons alone | Andy Price

It’s late afternoon and once again I find myself in the family room of the A&E unit at our local hospital, attempting to reassure an armed forces veteran that he won’t be turned away and that we will get him the support he so desperately needs. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here under these circumstances and it won’t be the last.

This former soldier had come to the veterans’ support project that I run earlier in the day; eyes wide and frightened, barely able to talk. One arm was crisscrossed with self-inflicted lacerations made with an old army lock knife to distract from the traumas that relentlessly haunt him. This once proud man, who served his country for almost a decade and a half, being deployed on numerous operations and reaching the rank of sergeant, is now living in a low-dependency residential unit for veterans who require extra support. All these men are diagnosed with mental health difficulties; some are dependent on alcohol and drugs.

The house he shares with half a dozen other former service personnel is staffed from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Evenings, nights and weekends the residents must manage their own medication and, if an incident occurs, they must rely on one another. But even the staff they do have would be the first to admit they are often out of their depth and not qualified to provide the help these men need.

The soldier that I am with doesn’t want to die but says that if he doesn’t get help and is sent home from the hospital, this could be his last night on Earth. There is no bed available in any mental health unit in Dorset, and the tired-looking nurse from the crisis team looks pained as he tells me that this damaged man is going to be sent back home with some extra medication to help him sleep – nothing else can be done tonight. The former sergeant asks if his years in the services mean nothing, before lowering his head into his hands to hide his tears.

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There is a paradox in the fact that, as we approach the centenary of Armistice Day, our fighting men and women from more recent times are in reality no better off than their predecessors in terms of aftercare and mental health support. Yes, it’s true that traumatised servicemen and women are no longer shot as cowards, and that conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder are now recognised – yet the Ministry of Defence refuses to keep accurate records of how many veterans are affected by mental health difficulties and, more critically, how many take their own lives.

Many countries track these figures, but in the UK our former troops are effectively thrown on to the scrapheap and forgotten about by those who have a responsibility to ensure their welfare. This year alone I am aware of 50 veteran suicides, but the reality is that these numbers are quite possibly a lot higher.

On Remembrance Sunday, as the leaders of the nation stand in front of the Cenotaph in mock servitude to those who paid the ultimate price, some of us will be standing by to support those who have made it home but are in effect still deployed and fighting their personal battles daily.

Even though the public will still gather to pay homage and show their respects, for many of us veterans this act has been tarnished by those who turn a blind eye to the continuing struggle. As the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month approaches, I and many others will be remembering those who have been lost long after returning home, and wondering how many more names will be added to that list by this time next year.

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Andy Price is director of the Veteran’s Hub in Weymouth and Portland. The former sergeant found a bed that evening in a secure hospital manned 24 hours a day by a passionate and supportive team who will be working with him for the foreseeable future. Even though he may not see it at the moment, he is now one of the lucky ones

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here


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