Andy McNab on the battle that never ends
Combat Stress is one of the charities you can support in this year’s Telegraph appeal. Here, Andy McNab, who has seen brave friends devastated by the aftermath of war, explains why it is such a vital cause.
With thousands of members of the Armed Forces returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is rising dramatically.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. The ancient Greeks recorded similar symptoms in their soldiers after they returned from battle. They understood that their veterans would require support. But somehow the Greeks’ lessons were lost on us.
During the First World War, a PTSD sufferer would have been placed against a wall and shot because it was believed that this condition was brought on by weakness of character. During the Second World War, the sufferer was instead sent down the coal mines and made to wear a LMF (lack of moral fibre) armband.
Even today, PTSD suffers are stigmatised. This has to stop. Any service personnel hit by the disorder are casualties of war, just as much as soldiers hit by an enemy bullet. More service personnel who fought in the 1982 Falklands War have gone on to commit suicide than the 255 killed in action.
I served in the British Army for 18 years: eight as an infantry solider, and 10 in the SAS. I have been captured and tortured as a prisoner of war in Iraq. I have been placed against a wall for a mock execution. I have stood beside friends as they have been shot or blown up in the mud, and I have killed men in many different ways, to prevent the enemy from killing me first. I don’t think I suffer from PTSD, but I am very aware that I probably just got lucky.
I’m a patron of Help for Heroes. We do a lot to help the physical wellbeing of injured soldiers, and we also work alongside the charity Combat Stress. But we need a lot more help if we are even going to begin to treat this condition properly. Combat Stress says it takes an average of 14 years before someone approaches its charity for help. And they usually do that only when their lives have already fallen apart.
I know this from experience. Two of my closest friends have committed suicide as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, and many more have suffered terribly for years. My SAS troop, 7 Troop, was never more than 12-strong, so we knew each other very well. Frank Collins and Nish Bruce were a bit older than me and they became my heroes. I operated with both of these men in South East Asia, as well as under cover in Northern Ireland. Frank eventually left the SAS, got ordained into the Anglican Church and became an Army Padre.
Nish was decorated for his bravery and ranked as one of the top 10 free-fallers in the world. Both were tough, brave and thoughtful men. To see my two friends, and others like them, decline in body and spirit until they can’t bear to live any more, leaves me scared, frustrated and angry.
After my experience of being a POW in Baghdad in the first Gulf war, I was automatically sent for counselling. It was conducted by Dr Gordon Turnbull, then an RAF psychiatrist, and now one of the world’s leading experts on PTSD. He explains it very simply: a normal reaction to an abnormal experience.
Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, high anxiety, severe mood swings, hyper-alertness, violent and aggressive outbursts, lack of concentration, sexual dysfunction and depression, and an inability to readjust to ordinary life. It often leads to drinking, divorce, violence, unemployment, crime, prison, suicide and even murder.
Another member of my troop, Tommy Shanks, became a doctor after he left the SAS. One day he pulled an assault rifle from the boot of his car after an argument with his ex-girlfriend and gunned her down outside a pub. He is serving life in prison. Three guys who served with Shanks in the Gulf have committed suicide. Two were military doctors. Seeing young men carried into their wards scarred and with limbs missing must have taken its toll.
All sufferers of PTSD need treatment. But like the combat that is responsible for the disorder, fixing a broken mind is not a precise science. Part of the problem is that soldiers often don’t want to ask for help. Apart from anything else, they don’t want those close to them to think they are weak.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is not about being weak. I have been to both Iraq and Afghanistan with our troops, and today’s 19-year-old infantry solders are as hard as any generation before them.
Since late onset of PTSD can occur up to 13 years after a traumatic event, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. About 130,000 UK armed service personnel have now rotated through Iraq and Bosnia. So far, more than 2,000 Iraq veterans have already been diagnosed with PTSD.
Charities are at the forefront of care for our veterans. But what about the NHS? The state has made them responsible for veterans’ mental welfare.
I feel the NHS could do so much more but stands back, perhaps in the hope that the underfunded but committed charities will do it for them. There is a mental health crisis facing those who have served our country. We need to act now, before we discover in another decade that more soldiers have killed themselves since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed there in action. Our veterans deserve our help, our understanding and a whole lot of respect. And what’s more, they need it now.