Former head of Army accuses Government of ‘lack of sincerity’ over military covenant
The forthcoming commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings will naturally be a time when people reflect on the enormous sacrifices that were required of British and allied troops to liberate Europe and end the war. The D-Day landings alone accounted for around 10,000 dead and injured, while during the course of the Second World War it is estimated that nearly 400,000 British military personnel lost their lives.
But while the sacrifices made by the men and women who suffered death and physical injury fighting for their country are duly remembered with monuments and frequent services, the experiences of those who suffered less obvious injury, such as mental trauma, are less well appreciated.
“With hindsight, I suspect that, at the time, not enough attention was paid to the mental suffering of many of those who took part in the D-Day landings, and indeed with those who fought throughout the course of the Second World War,” said General Sir Peter Wall, the former head of the British Army, in an exclusive interview with the Daily Telegraph. “Thankfully, these days there is a great deal more focus, awareness and understanding about the chronic mental health issues that can arise with the men and women of the Armed Forces who have served in intense combat situations.”
During a long and distinguished Army career stretching back over four decades, Sir Peter, 63, has operational experience of conflicts including former Rhodesia, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and is well aware of the mental challenges of modern soldiering.
Today, instead of dealing with the horrors of the conventional military battlefield, service personnel Increasingly find themselves exposed to a variety of equally challenging scenarios, from identifying mass graves filled with murdered civilians, as was frequently the case in Bosnia, to coping with the deadly effects of home-made bombs, such as those used more recently by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan., as well as the deadly effects of chemical weapons “The nature of warfare has changed significantly since the D-Day landings 75 years ago, but the experience can take a very similar toll on those who are involved in intense combat operations today,” Sir Peter explained.
Now, in his capacity as President of the charity Combat Stress, which caters specifically for the mental health issues faced by members of Britain’s Armed Forces, Sir Peter is calling for the nation to provide better support for military veterans who suffer serious mental health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as part of its commitment to the military covenant. There is a long-standing Whitehall convention whereby key government departments, such as the NHS, ensure military personnel and veterans are properly treated in recognition of their service to Queen and Country.
David Cameron was even said to planning to enshrine the covenant into law, although in the event his coalition government opted not to pursue the idea. Sir Peter, though, believes the government should be doing more to support military veterans, particularly those suffering from severe mental health issues. “While, as a nation, we talk a good game about the military covenant, at the moment it feels to me as if there is a lack of sincerity in the way we apply it when it comes to tackling mental health problems faced by military personnel,” said Sir Peter. “For a relatively small amount of money we could provide the right level of support for military personnel who suffer from mental health issues as a result of the traumatic experiences they have had on the battlefield.”
Sir Peter is now helping to launch a fundraising campaign on behalf of Combat Stress, which marks its centenary on Sunday May 12, with the aim of raising £10 million to help fund its range of mental health programmes, such as its world-class PTSD Intensive Treatment Programme. In the past year the charity has provided support for nearly 3,500 veterans who have been diagnosed with a range of mental health issues dating back to their time in the military. “The problem with mental health issues is that, unlike physical injuries, they can manifest themselves many years after the event that triggered the trauma in the first place,” explained Sir Peter. “Often we find the problems can arise 10-15 years after the event.”
Recently, though, Combat Stress has been struggling to meet the significant demand for its services after suffering unexpected cuts to its budget. The first blow was a decision by NHS England to discontinue funding residential courses for veterans with mental health issues. In addition the Royal British Legion has reduced its contribution by 20 percent. Sir Peter believes it is both short-sighted and self-defeating to deny charities like Combat Stress proper funding. “A great deal of work has been done by the Forces in recent years to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues as a result of operations. The trend is towards much earlier diagnosis of these conditions, which is crucial,” he explained. “For the earlier you diagnose mental health issues, the less damage is caused, in terms of an individual’s well-being, their relations with family members and friends, and their economic prospects.”
More effort is spent these days on educating the military on the potential mental stress they might experience when deployed in combat situations, and how to cope with them. “When I joined the Army in 1973, nobody spoke about mental health issues,” said Sir Peter. “Now people are much more aware of the problem.” Consequently, demand for the services provided by charities like Combat Stress is an all time high. The only problem is that, because of budget constraints, the charity is struggling to meet the upsurge in demand.
“Combat Stress provides support that can transform the lives of those affected by mental health issues. In some cases if can even save lives,” said Sir Peter. “But current financial constraints mean that we are not able to meet the requirements of all those that need specialist help from Combat Stress.” At Ease Appeal