Charity Warns Of Mental Health Problems Among TA Officers In Iraq

The influential head of a Scottish veterans’ charity has warned that a disproportionate number of Territorial Army officers returning from duty in Iraq are suffering mental health problems. Clive Fairweather, a former SAS colonel and the appeals director of Combat Stress, revealed that TA troops form a quarter of those seeking help from the charity, yet they make up only 10% of British troops in Iraq. The campaigner – who is also the former chief inspector of prisons – said the TA was the Ministry of Defence’s ‘cheap option’ in the Middle East, and called for better funded support for part-time soldiers.

His comments came as a new American report showed that more than a third of US veterans seeking medical treatment after tours of Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of stress or other mental disorders.

Nearly 64,000 of the 184,000-plus Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans from the US who have sought health care from the Veteran Affairs Department were diagnosed with potential symptoms of post-traumatic stress, drug abuse or other mental disorders as of the end of June, according to the latest report by the Veterans’ Health Administration.

Of those, close to 30,000 had possible post-traumatic stress disorder, said the report.

Fairweather told the Sunday Herald the situation was mirrored in Scotland: “From Iraq alone there were 116 (ex-servicemen) from across the three army services on our books last week. The TA provide 10% of the troops in Iraq but they make up 25% of our referrals.”

He said more investment was needed to retain the good will of the volunteer reserve forces and that more should be done to help employers and families understand the TA soldier’s mindset when they are demobbed.

He said: “TA soldiers are combatants on the cheap. They have gone from being back up to being a more central part of the army – there needs to be more money spent on them than before. They don’t get anywhere near the same training that the regiments do, that costs money.

“With TA soldiers we are talking about a matter of weeks, whereas in the regiments they are effectively training 365 days a year. They get little training before they go, they are deployed with people they don’t know, which really makes a difference in these circumstances. They don’t get the same briefing or debriefing as the real armed forces. The ones in Afghanistan get two weeks to depressurise because of the high stress situation they have been in, that is not given to the TA forces.

“In the not-so-distant future we will be dealing with mental health problems (in the TA) as a reaction to the war in Afghanistan, of the kind you would expect from that kind of situation. This will come but how many and how severe, who can tell.”

He cautioned that post traumatic stress could last for life. “To give an example, we still have 160 veterans suffering from mental health difficulties from fighting against the Japanese in the second world war.”

However, he pointed out that contemporary veterans were coming forward for help more quickly. “One of the things we are seeing is that people are coming to us much quicker on their return,” he said. ‘Before there could be 12 to 14 years between whatever caused the trauma and people coming forward and now it can be 11 months. How much of that is to do with the severity of the fighting or that mental health problems are much more openly talked about is unclear.”

Despite Fairweather’s concerns, TA major Mike Edwards from Glasgow, whose novel Friendly Fire is based on his experiences serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, praised the support he received when he was demobbed.

The Scottish Television news presenter said: “I received two weeks of training and I was overwhelmed by the quality. And they really go through you when you come back, you get a medical and a talk on post traumatic stress. They make you and your partner fill in a questionnaire.

“When TA officers are demobbed it isn’t the same as it is for regulars – they go on holiday together whereas a TA officer goes back to his job on his own. That’s always been the way.”

An MoD spokesperson defended the army’s treatment of TA officers. She said: “We do prepare reserves for a return to civilian life in the same way that we prepare regiments. They will go through briefings while they are away about how to deal with stress and any possible effects when they go home. When they come back they are given the same support as the others returning to the UK. There is support for their families as well if they ask for it.”

She added that demobbed TA officers who had mental health problems currently accessed treatment through the NHS but said that the provision was currently under review, with a report expected later this year.

The Territorial Army makes up about a quarter of British forces, adding to roughly 40,000 troops.