One man who'd served in WW2 wouldn't talk about the war at all to his family, but they knew enough to say that he'd been severely traumatised by what he'd witnessed and suffered mental illness for the rest of his life. Nothing that his wife or anyone else could do or say would help. He was scared of his own shadow and deeply depressed. There was very little help available to men of his generation.
There still isn't enough. A charity that specialises in the care of ex-service men and women’s mental health says that, since 2005, the number seeking help has risen by 72%. I imagine that there are likely to be at least as many again who need help, but haven’t had any, or nearly enough.
'John', who never got the right sort of help when he needed it, was a radio operator in Northern Ireland. His brother told his story at the funeral:
He was what the unit called “The Bleep” – the radio whiz kid in the communications Land Rover – when bombs were being defused. He told me it was a different type of soldiering. His job was to save life and protect property, not destroy it. His job was to maintain an electronic bubble around the operator actually defusing the bomb, so that the IRA couldn’t detonate it. The technology that the unit developed is still used today to maintain a security zone around the Prime Minister when he’s out in public.Some time later, John (not his real name) was on duty in Brighton the night the IRA bombed the hotel where Mrs Thatcher and her Cabinet were staying. He blamed himself for failing to find the device, but it turned out that it couldn't have been detected by the equipment they had at the time.
One Christmas, when home on leave, we sat watching the news. An IRA bomber had blown himself up while planting a device. I remember the look of shock on Mother’s face when John raised both his hands and shouted, “Yes! Own goal!” How could her cuddly little boy take such a delight in the demise of another human being?
What she didn’t know was that some months before, while on active service in what the Army called “bandit country” in Crossmaglen, things had gone badly wrong and John got spattered when a colleague was caught in an explosion. It was the horror of this, I believe, that led to a serious drinking habit.
It was years later that John died, after his marriage had broken down and his health had been destroyed by alcohol. Those who cared about him did their best, but all he wanted to do was drink his demons away. At his funeral, I said,
After years of conflict in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not surprising that some psychological injuries may be even more difficult to cope with than physical injuries, and more stubborn. A soldier has to maintain a level of detachment, however frightened he or she might be. Coming home to find that the battles have come home with them, many have tried to deal with their problems on their own, without the comradeship they knew back in the barracks. It’s not surprising that so many should find, as John did, that they weren’t equipped to do so. Some might blame themselves, but post-traumatic stress isn’t due to failure or lack of courage; it’s a natural human reaction to being placed in situations that most of us never have to contemplate, and wishing that they’d stop. Wilfred Own, who fought in the 1914-18 War, wrote a poem called “Insensibility”, in which he suggests that those who could fight without feeling were best equipped to survive. He wrote, “Happy are these who lose imagination: They have enough to carry with ammunition.”