As the nation fell silent on Sunday to pay homage to its war dead, the thoughts of many would have been drawn to those people still serving and to those who have been seriously injured. However, there’s a growing number of our veterans suffering in silence. I call them the “invisible wounded” because they’re psychologically damaged by their experiences on the battlefield and their wounds cannot be seen.
The British armed forces have seen more intense and prolonged combat over the past ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan than at any time since the Second World War, and a recent academic study discovered that six in every hundred will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While those who are physically wounded rightly receive some of the best medical care in the world, I’m concerned that not enough is being done to care for those who suffer psychologically.
The injuries may be invisible to us but to them, and their families, the impact of mental trauma caused through serving their country can be devastating. To quote one soldier I’ve met on his private battle with PTSD: “This war is worse than the one in Afghan.” Looking at him, it’s hard to believe that this tough young man is sometimes afraid to visit the local supermarket or leave his house.
It shouldn’t be lost on any of us that during the First World War sufferers were often shot at dawn. This condition isn’t a new phenomenon; even Shakespeare wrote about it (in Henry IV Part I). It was known as “battle fatigue” in the Second World War, and sufferers records were stamped LMF – lack of moral fibre.
It took the protracted war in Vietnam for the Americans to recognise PTSD as we know it today. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in terms of treating this condition is the stigma attached. In fact, it can take many years for people to come to terms with this disabling illness and summon the courage to get help.
While our armed forces have accepted that there’s a growing problem and improved treatment is available, many serving soldiers perceive, rightly or wrongly, that their career will be severely damaged by admitting they’re suffering. Also, once they leave the armed forces, they become the responsibility of the NHS and it is very much a postcode lottery as to the help that is available to them.
While making my latest film about PTSD, I caught up with six veterans, not just from Afghanistan, but also Iraq, Northern Ireland and the Falklands, to look at how they’d been affected and what help they received. I wanted to find out how disabling and destructive the consequences of living with PTSD are, not only to the individual sufferer but also to their loved ones. Alcohol, violence and antisocial behaviour are all symptoms of this illness that not only affects families but the whole community.
The issue of mental health has never been popular with politicians because the rewards in terms of investment are so difficult to quantify. But as these servicemen and women did their duty for us, surely we have a continuing duty and obligation to them.