Since Britain committed itself to unpopular ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldier suicides have occurred with tragic regularity, writes Richard Pendlebury (pictured)
When I last saw Bombardier Gareth Crabbe, he appeared to be thriving. In fact, that is an understatement.
He was one of the stars of The Two Worlds Of Charlie F – a show about, and performed by, injured veterans.
There is a picture from the time of ‘Crabby’ posing with the actor Ray Winstone — his new friend and mentor.
Bombardier Crabbe’s military career had ended when his back was crushed by a 105mm howitzer while training for deployment to Afghanistan.
In 2012, the year he was medically discharged from the Army, he was offered a new direction in life: the theatre. Charlie F got five-star reviews and toured the UK and Canada. By then, Bombardier Crabbe had embraced the arts.
Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Hill, a mutual friend and fellow Charlie F cast member who was grievously wounded in Afghanistan, recalls taking part in a poetry reading with Gareth Crabbe in London in 2016.
It was Colonel Hill’s birthday, and Crabbe gave him a book that night — an anthology of life-affirming poems called Staying Alive.
The first to be reported this year was that of Warrant Officer Nathan Hunt (circled next to Prince Harry), 39, who had served alongside Prince Harry in Afghanistan in 2008 and was Mentioned in Dispatches. He suffered from severe PTSD and took his life at his home on New Year’s Day
On the flyleaf, he had written: ‘Thank you for all the support you have given me when I needed it the most. This book has given me the will to go on.’
‘Crabby told me that night that poetry had saved his life,’ Colonel Hill says.
‘He was coming off painkillers and had joined a military self-help group near his home. Everything was ‘fantastic’.’
But a few weeks later, 38-year-old Gareth Crabbe killed himself.
The subsequent inquest into his death heard that he had been unable to shake off the severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by his accident and by the brutalities he had witnessed on active service in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq.
A divorced father-of-two, he had also become addicted to the painkillers prescribed for the spinal injury.
His house had been burgled and he felt helpless. His ex-wife said he had felt ‘neglected’ by the Army after he left.
Having joined up at the age of 18, soldiering had brought him both pleasure and, in the end, unbearable pain and the loss of the will to live.
Has the military done enough to help these often forgotten or unrecognised victims of our recent wars? What more can be done to save them from themselves?
Since Britain committed itself to unpopular ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, such deaths have occurred with tragic regularity.
Afghan veteran Lance Corporal James Ross (pictured), 30, was serving with 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, when he apparently took his own life at his barracks in Northern Ireland, in December 2012
The first to be reported this year was that of Warrant Officer Nathan Hunt, 39, who had served alongside Prince Harry in Afghanistan in 2008 and was Mentioned in Dispatches.
He suffered from severe PTSD and took his life at his home on New Year’s Day.
And so the statistics stack up.
Shockingly, in 2012 — two years before Britain pulled most of its forces out of Afghanistan — the combined total of suicides by serving soldiers and veterans (49) outstripped that of frontline fatalities.
The number of soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and were newly diagnosed with PTSD more than doubled between 2009 and 2012. The year 2009 was Britain’s bloodiest of the war.
The year 2013-14, meanwhile, saw the number of serving soldiers who had deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq and then had an initial diagnosis of PTSD reach a new high of 319 cases, according to figures released in November.
Of the serving soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, around four-fifths had served in those two warzones.
The charity Combat Stress said that, in 2015, six new veterans a day asked it for help — its busiest period in a 96-year history, and more than double the number seen the year before.
Iraq veteran Aidan Knight (pictured) tried four times to take his own life. In April 2015 he succeeded. He was 29
Of course post-traumatic stress need not lead to suicide, but it is a warning that the sufferer urgently needs help. If he — or she — has left the forces without the condition already having been diagnosed, let alone treated, then the sufferer is in a particularly vulnerable situation.
One former soldier who has struggled badly in civilian life is Jason (whose surname we have withheld for security reasons), who had two spells in the military. He has been told he has probably suffered from some form of PTSD for the past 20 years.
He first served in his local county infantry regiment, including a tour of Northern Ireland in which one of his team was shot in the head by an IRA sniper.
The regiment was later sent to Bosnia as part of UN forces. Outside Sarajevo in 1995, Jason was involved in a vehicle accident and, as a result, taken captive for several days by Serb forces.
On leaving the Army in 1997, he lived by himself, grew his hair and smoked pot all day. His family then intervened and he pulled himself together sufficiently to go to university.
After graduation, and having trained for 21 SAS selection, Jason joined a military intelligence unit, working alongside UK Special Forces.
In this role, he was deployed in 2009 to the badlands of Afghanistan, helping to fight narcotics trafficking along the Pakistan border.
In 2011, he returned for a second tour of the country as an intelligence specialist.
By then, a number of ‘issues’ which were the first signs of PTSD had been noted by an officer during a basic mental health assessment.
In the UK, Jason had been drinking heavily, sleeping badly and had anger issues. Nothing was done.
In 2012, he was sent back for a third high-pressure Afghan deployment, once again with Special Forces. He was a corporal by now.
‘By the time I got back to the UK again I was burnt out,’ he says. ‘I spent two weeks in bed and my partner grew very worried.
‘I told [the military] what was happening, and they said they would get me in front of a mental health specialist. But again that never happened. Instead, I was sent on exercise to Kenya, and that is where I snapped.’
He says he threatened to shoot an officer he saw bullying a soldier. Then he threatened a member of the exercise’s directing staff.
‘That is when my world began to collapse. The military saw the cracks — and all of a sudden I became a liability rather than a colleague who needed help. Eventually I was called in front of a panel.
They pushed my resignation papers across the desk and suggested that I sign them.’
He left the Army in 2015.
‘They missed the opportunity to diagnose me with PTSD on a number of occasions,’ he says.
‘In Afghanistan, I was told things like ‘Make sure you see someone when you get back to the UK’. My job was too important to remove me.
‘But once I left the military, I was alone with the heavy drinking and the nightmares, when I would wake up grabbing for a rifle that wasn’t there.
I suffered extreme paranoia and thought I was being followed and watched, and my phone was tapped.
‘But at the same time I wasn’t aware that any of this behaviour was odd, or that it was all symptoms of PTSD.’
In the end, his partner Natalie ‘dragged’ him to a psychologist ‘and within half an hour I had been diagnosed with complex PTSD and burn-out.
That was a year ago, and I am still in cognitive behavioural therapy. I still have some way to go.
‘I feel let down by the organisation and people I trusted. They had their pound of flesh from me, but failed in their duty of care when I needed them the most.’
He admits he has thought about taking his own life. He says that, even as we speak, his heart is pounding. He has never talked to a stranger about his problems before.
Jason continues to fight his battle for stability, but for many others the struggle proved too much.
Afghan veteran Lance Corporal James Ross, 30, was serving with 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, when he apparently took his own life at his barracks in Northern Ireland, in December 2012.
His mother, Linda Ketcher, said: ‘It has been a very tough time.
I have had to seek counselling myself as the Army does absolutely nothing to help. I think it has a duty of care not just to its soldiers but to their families, too.’
Lance Corporal Ross’s family still don’t understand what led to his death — an inquest has been delayed and is due in May.
His mother wonders if it was PTSD or a reaction to anti-malarial drugs the troops were given before the Afghan deployment.
‘James had just been promoted and was enjoying organising his first mess dinner,’ she says.
He had been home in November 2012, when he had a great time meeting up with family and friends, she recalls.
‘There was no sign of there being anything wrong with him. He couldn’t come home for Christmas but he said there was plenty for him to do on the base and he would be back in the New Year.
‘I wonder if there were signs of PTSD which were missed. His regiment suffered heavy casualties in Afghanistan and obviously that was a very difficult tour.
‘At the time of James’s death, there had been two suicides and eight incidents of serious self-harm [at his barracks] in a seven-month period. Surely that would indicate to most people there was some underlying problem?
‘The Army should be more mindful of those who serve them so well, and their families. But these young men and women are treated as numbers, not people.
They take them off to fight, but then they don’t want to have to deal with what they have to see and do, and what that does to them.’
Iraq veteran Aidan Knight’s mother tried everything she could to save her soldier son from his demons.
But in the end she was helpless in the face of his self-destructive determination.
Aidan saw frontline action with 2 Para as a teenager. He left the military in 2008 after five years, saying that he had seen ‘too much death’.
He suffered from nightmares and cold sweats and other familiar signs of intense stress — but it was the sudden death of his beloved brother, George, which helped precipitate his own, says his mother Angie.
Her son tried four times to take his own life. In April 2015 he succeeded. He was 29.
A coroner recorded a suicide verdict but refused to accept it was due to PTSD, even though Aidan had finally presented himself for treatment in the months before his death.
But he was not considered a high enough risk to be admitted to hospital, and there was a delay in seeing an NHS psychiatrist.
Angie said: ‘He was a tortured soul. He bottled it all in and never spoke of what he did out there in Iraq. We did our best to support him but we are not experts.
‘I tried everything to reason with him, to help him and get him to seek some treatment.
‘I tried tough love by telling him to get a grip. He leaned in the car as I drove off that day and told me he didn’t want an open casket.
‘As a mother, looking back, it is very difficult. He had said things about dying before, and you just hope he didn’t mean it and wouldn’t go through with it. I begged doctors to help him but they couldn’t unless he asked for it.’
A serious case review by the NHS concluded more could have been done to help Aidan and operational changes have been implemented. A compensation claim for his three children is being negotiated.
Angie added: ‘It’s so important the military, the NHS and coroners realise there is a problem with this, and they need to recognise they need to deal with it. If highlighting my son’s case helps, then his death will not have been in vain.’
Yesterday, an MoD spokesperson said: ‘We have invested £20 million in mental health services, have committed to tackling the stigma of mental health and launched our mental health and wellbeing strategy alongside partnering with the Royal Foundation.’
Neil Greenberg is the Professor of Defence Mental Health at King’s College, London. He served in the military for 20 years and developed the now widely used Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) procedure, which is designed to help commanders pick up on early signs of PTSD among their men.
He says: ‘We know that people who work in a combat role are at increased risk of suffering poor mental health as a result of deployment.
There is a lot of scientific evidence showing that ‘social support’ is generally very protective of people’s mental health.
‘But even with the best support, some people can be psychologically injured by severe stress.’
Jason, the former military intelligence officer, underwent TRiM assessment four times, but there was no follow-up when his problems were spotted.
‘It needs to be part of a process,’ he says. ‘Not an end in itself.’
He felt alone and helpless. Bombardier Crabbe felt the same.
As did Nathan Hunt and the scores of other Afghan and Iraq combat veterans who felt they had nowhere to turn. For them, the greatest battle began when they got home.
Additional reporting: Simon Trump
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