The word unprecedented has been used a lot lately. During the Covid-19 lockdown last year, my teenage daughter baulked every time a journalist, news anchor, pundit, or politician used that particular adjective. When talking about the period of history following the fall of the Berlin Wall, for the British Army there is not a more appropriate word. Sweeping cuts brought about by the ‘Peace Dividend’ driven Options for Change bill, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, an uncertain future in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, 9/11, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, meant the careers of soldiers who served throughout this period of time were truly unprecedented.
The difference between conflicts of the past and what the post-Cold War generation had to endure, is the duration that they were involved in operations. It was supposed to be the end of a war, a time of peace and stability, but for soldiers that joined in the mid-to-late 1980s many would serve their entire 22-year careers while the Army was involved in combat theatres or operations around the world. For some, crazy as it may seem, at the height of the British Army’s operational commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq they were asked to serve beyond their 22-year engagements because of chronic shortages caused by post-Cold War reductions in manpower.
The recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has evoked strong feelings from ex-soldiers who sacrificed and lost so much in that country. Soldiers have every right to be proud of their role, despite often being hamstrung by geo-political or strategic decisions made in Washington D.C. and London. Despite this, the anger caused by scenes shown around the world is palpable. The last British Army soldier died in combat there eight years ago, but things could have been very different if British paratroopers at Kabul airport had handed over the targeted checkpoint to the United States Marine Corps a few hours after they did. It could have been 14 flag-draped coffins heading back to the United Kingdom instead of the United States.
Most retired soldiers I interviewed for my book, After the Wall Came Down, generally look back on their service in a positive light. When asked if they would do it all again, most said they wouldn’t change a thing. But underneath this view lies a distinct undertone of angst and betrayal that predates the recent departure from Afghanistan by years with the effects of their service decades ago still very raw.
One of the most surprising things for me was the extent to which soldiers were affected by serving in the Balkans with the United Nations and NATO. Many soldiers I spoke to who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan on multiple tours, said they were still deeply scarred by what they had witnessed in Bosnia and Kosovo. One soldier said, “The people, the hatred, the desperation, the destruction, feelings of helplessness, and fear…It never goes away, and I think about it every day. Those who were there know and those who weren’t have no idea.”
One of the main sources of resentment felt throughout the veteran community, is the total lack of support from politicians who fail to protect retired soldiers from vexatious lawsuits brought about by politically motivated prosecutors looking for an easy target and scapegoat many years after the soldiers’ service has ended. There was wide-spread anger during the “unmitigated disaster” that was the Iraq Historic Allegations Team investigations, and some vindication afterwards when it was shut down after the conduct of a few corrupt lawyers came to light. But the real bitterness and rise in veteran activism is saved for the way some Northern Ireland veterans have been treated, and the reluctance of politicians to intervene on their behalf.
The sight of a frail, terminally ill, 80-year-old veteran, being dragged back to Northern Ireland to face murder charges for a tragic incident that happened in 1974, despite there being no new evidence was hard to take, especially when so many convicted murderers walked free, released after the Good Friday Agreement. But when that soldier died in a Belfast hospital while on trial, a fire seems to have been lit throughout the entire veteran community with plans to make sure politicians never allow this to happen again.
Despite constant deployment on operational tours with almost every serving soldier committed, cuts were still made. At first, the cuts manifested themselves in acute manning shortages – regiments stretched thin with soldiers sometimes committed on back-to-back tours in Northern Ireland or Bosnia. But soon, reduced budgets and treasury penny-pinching started to cost soldiers their lives. In the midst of being stretched to breaking point with large forces committed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Whitehall’s endless fixation on cutting costs was there for all to see. Not enough body armour, no system to help prevent friendly fire incidents, totally inadequate vehicles not fit for purpose, and radios that did not work, all directly led to loss of life. Veterans I spoke with were not complaining about the tasks they were given; they all knew what was required of them. But in the cold light of day, as more information is released to the public, there is bitter reproachment aimed at those who sent them to war so badly equipped, without the tools to do the job, decisions that directly led to friends losing their lives.
Scars and trauma of wars affecting those who did the fighting is nothing new. Battle fatigue, shellshock, or what physicians now diagnose as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be seen in soldiers after every conflict throughout history. There is no doubt that the Army is much better equipped to deal with soldiers who come back from operational duty suffering from those experiences and the things they have seen, but it was not always that way. Although the issue of mental health amongst serving soldiers and veterans has received greater awareness and support in recent years, until quite recently soldiers leaving the ranks were left to fend for themselves. One soldier I interviewed was medically discharged in 2014, after being diagnosed with ‘chronic and profound PTSD.’ After serving in the Army for 23 years, he told me that he was left feeling like he had committed a crime. Another soldier who left after serving for 24 years showed all the signs of PTSD, but received no medical screening. He has since received help through a charitable trust.
Because of the intensity of their service during the post-Cold War era, there are currently thousands of ex-soldiers with mostly undiagnosed PTSD who have since turned to drink or drugs, been incarcerated, become homeless, or taken their own lives. Almost every veteran I interviewed knows someone who has taken their own life after leaving the Army. The alarm bells have been ringing for decades, but the full scale of what has been happening has only just started to sink in. The devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with veterans suffering from PTSD left isolated and vulnerable. Unable to get the services they desperately need during lock-down, many veterans now say their mental health issues have gotten worse. In June 2020, the charity, Help for Heroes, conducted a survey that showed over 50% of veterans were not managing their mental health well compared to before the pandemic.
As the country now starts to try and find a new normal, it is not the time to assume we’ll all be okay, especially our post-Cold War veterans who have already endured so much. Many charities, big and small, that depend on annual giving are in dire need of help. Vital support services they provide for soldiers and their families are dependent upon public support.
Andrew Richards is a former army officer and the author of After the Wall Came Down: Soldiering through the Transformation of the British Army, 1990–2020.
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