War on the mind: Why the War in Afghanistan will continue at home

War is fought by human beings. No matter how much technology you use, there will be people at both ends of it. War is, at its most basic form, the politicised killing of human beings by other humans to achieve political goals. It is dirty, scary and dangerous. In 1879 General Sherman made the infamous comment ‘war is hell.’ War takes both the body and the mind of the combatant and stretches them to their limits; sometimes beyond. The soldier, sailor or airman will be tested beyond comprehension for several months and yet expected to fit perfectly back into the society in which they left behind. For some they have gone through too much for their mind to return to its original shape.

This writer a few years ago read a book written prior to the First World War entitled Modern Warfare. The relatively redundant book condemned what we know as combat stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as cowardice and ‘the jitters.’ The stigma of mental health issues has of course been significantly reduced within the armed forces, but it still remains. Combat Stress, the UK’s leading charity regarding PTSD, contends that there is still a great level of stigma attached to the disease as ‘many soldiers suffer in silence for years, worried that their illness will be seen as a sign of weakness.’

The stigma of mental health issues however has decreased most dramatically during the last three decades. Combat Stress found that veterans generally waited an average of thirteen years before seeking medical help after serving, but this had fallen to an average of only eighteen months for Afghanistan veterans. The BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt argued that this trend was possibly because there is both a greater awareness of psychological trauma and also that the stigma has greatly diminished. This appear to be a promising trend. Combat Stress in 2013 received 358 new Afghanistan veteran referrals in 2013, a fifty-seven per cent rise on the previous year.

Nonetheless, acknowledging the issue is only the first step. PTSD is complex and difficult. The government will have removed all but around 160 to 180 British service personnel from Afghanistan. Signalling the end to the thirteen year war in Afghanistan. However this does not mean that the veterans after this year can be neglected. Although many will come back to Britain uninjured physically, a great deal will have invisible wounds and mental scaring.

The chief executive of Combat Stress, Commodore Andrew Cameron, told the Telegraph that ‘we have exposed a lot of young men to a lot of quite horrendous trauma in Afghanistan and Iraq.’ He continues to note that ‘we see about 1,500 new people each year and that is going up by ten to twelve per cent each year.’

It is predicted, by one charity, that there will be a rise of twelve per cent each year until at least 2018. This time last year MoD statistics showed that around 11,000 members of the military have been diagnosed with mental conditions such as PTSD. Between 2003 and 2013 some 123 British troops have died of suspected or confirmed suicide whilst serving in in the Armed Forces.

The Ministry of Defence has gone to a relatively limited effort to deal with the issues, for example the government has said that it has invested £7.4 million in mental health services. The MoD has also introduced ‘decompression’ to help combat PTSD by giving soldiers up to two weeks in Cyprus, to allow them to adjust to life. An article produced by Hughes and other scholars suggests that as yet there is no evidence to suggest that decompression does or does not work.

For some it appears to be impossible to return back to civilian life. The BBC interviewed former lance sergeant Jake Wood, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2007. Wood explains that the ‘hyper vigilance’ that you need within the field ‘becomes seared into your brain and the danger is you bring that back with you.’ He provides the example that ‘I was in a restaurant yesterday and someone clapped their hands sharply behind me.’ He continues ‘all of a sudden I was not sitting behind that table, I was, in my mind, in a ditch in Afghanistan with Kalashnikov bullets going over my head.’ Wood was treated with intensive psychiatric treatment from the MoD, yet he was not cured and was medically discharged.

Another interview was conducted with Wane Tabone, who upon returning home after a tour of Afghanistan in 2009 felt isolated and abandoned by the Army. Tabone told the BBC ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to leave it behind. Unfortunately, some of the stuff that’s gone on and some of the stuff I’ve done, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget.’

2014 marks the end of the war within Afghanistan. But over the next several years, we will find that for numerous veterans the war is all but over. We must not only remember the dead, but consider the living. We need to look after the human element of our forces. The government would do well to focus more money and attention towards the Mental Health of our Afghanistan veterans.