Rhondda veterans say Wales lacks full trauma care

As UK forces continue to suffer casualties in Afghanistan, a rehabilitation centre at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan is helping soldiers injured both there and and in Iraq.

Our report on that centre led to us being contacted by a group who want similar help for those who have suffered psychological damage while serving their country. Neil Prior reports.
Continue reading the main story Army medics at work

Injured service personnel are treated in Birmingham before being referred to the centre at St Athan

The men of Rhondda Veterans’ Support Group have horror stories to tell.

When Chris J was in the RAF, he was pressed into action with an emergency Green Goddess fire crew during the 1978 firemen’s strike.

He was called to a house fire in Birmingham, where, lacking the equipment, he and two others forced their way through fierce flames to recover the bodies of three children.

Former soldier Chris E was ordered to clear an Argentinian position during the battle for Goose Green in the 1982 Falklands conflict, was unable to free his bayonet from an enemy’s chest, and was forced to shoot him to save his own life.

Rob trained as a sniper in the Army and has been left with the images of those he killed.

He served in Cyprus and the Middle East, and in Northern Ireland he collected the body parts of a friend killed by an IRA booby trap.

John, a former South Wales Police officer, was beaten over the head with a metal bar in an unprovoked 1974 attack.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these men now suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a long-term reaction to trauma that can manifest itself in flashbacks, nightmares, raised anxiety, depression and alcohol or drugs misuse.

While they commend efforts to support wounded service people, they want similar help for those who suffered psychological damage while serving their country.

The Ministry of Defence[MoD] is obliged to support service personnel for only a year after their discharge, and only then if they have performed at least four years’ active service.

After that, responsibility for their treatment in Wales passes to the NHS.

Chris J said: “The problem with post traumatic stress disorder is that it isn’t always possible to detect it straight away.

“I struggled on for another eight years before I finally had to admit something was wrong. It took nearly another 20 years before I was finally diagnosed with PTSD.

“After being given my label (PTSD), I never received another appointment, and I’ve been left to fend for myself ever since – and tried to end it all several times.”

The Rhondda veterans say they are among the lucky ones because they have the support of each other.

It is estimated that anything up to 80% of those diagnosed with PTSD have resorted to alcohol or drug abuse in an attempt to ease their pain.

Each year in Wales 15-25 men and women leave the police and armed forces suffering from PTSD, and many have to cope alone, but there is only one six-bed residential facility in Wales to treat the condition.

Across the UK, 8,500 former servicemen are in jail, representing 10% of the overall prison population.

Drink and drugs

Chris E said: “Lots of people with PTSD have nightmares, but for me the flashbacks are always when I’m awake.

“It’s human nature that if [the authorities] won’t take people seriously, they’ll try and self-medicate with drink and drugs, just to forget.

“I was lucky in a bizarre way. I was confined to a wheelchair with MS, so I had to get a grip on the drinking, plus I met the rest of the Rhondda boys and could talk about it for the first time.

“But so many people aren’t so lucky, and end up in prison, or killing themselves, or even worse, killing someone else.”

Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader, Elfyn Llwyd, the MP for Merionnydd Nant Conwy, has long been a champion of better services for ex-soldiers.

He has teamed up with the Howard League for Penal Reform to study how the USA looks after its veterans and keeps them out of the criminal justice system.

Mr Llwyd argued that a “holistic approach” was required to reintegrate men and women back into civilian life, incorporating help with employment and budgeting, tenancy and housing advice, and support networks for their families.

“The situation for veterans in Wales is just as horrible as the rest of the UK, no better, no worse,” he said.

“To say the current system is a postcode lottery is more than an understatement. There are patches of Wales who are making a concerted effort to get to grips with the problem, but there are far far too many areas where NHS trusts and social services departments are burying their heads in the sand, ignoring the timebomb on which they are sitting.”

“The military is a UK-wide institution, and providing adequately for its veterans needs a UK-wide strategy,” he said. “The problem is that no-one wants to take responsibility.”

The assembly government said: “We reject allegations about lack of access to post traumatic stress disorder services in Wales.

“We take our responsibilities to veterans seriously and a range of services are in place to care for them.

“The Ministry of Defence is responsible for treating injured serving personnel within its facilities and the location of these facilities is a matter for the MoD.

“We provide care for veterans and all veterans are entitled to priority NHS treatment in Wales for a health condition related to their military service.

“The vast majority of veterans can receive care through GPs and community mental health teams, and where required, access specialist inpatient services.”

Dr Dafydd Alun Jones, a psychiatrist who treats war veterans with PTSD, is critical of the help available to Wales’ most severe cases.

Dr Jones, who ran a specialist residential hospital Ty Gwyn, in Llandudno, until funding was lost in 2005, said his unit offered placements to personnel whose combat-related stress issues were too severe for the NHS to handle.
‘Effective and appropriate’

He said the care of PTSD sufferers had been “sub-contracted” to Combat Stress, a military charity specialising in the care of veterans’ mental health.

Dr Jones said: “I don’t want to decry for a moment the work that Combat Stress do, but it doesn’t go far enough.”

He said the efforts of Combat Stress worked well for people with “mild to moderate symptoms,” but not for more serious cases.

“Yet [the Welsh Assembly Government] pulled Ty Gwyn’s funding because they argued Combat Stress could deal adequately with all PTSD cases in Wales.”

A Combat Stress spokesperson said: “It is extremely important that as we look to the future and the predicted increase in ex-service personnel requiring treatment for psychological injuries that both statutory and third sector organisations work together to offer effective and appropriate care for these veterans.

“Combat Stress provides support for former servicemen and women across the UK. There are some instances where the charity is unable to intervene itself, for example with those sectioned under the mental health act or those unable to adhere to a nil alcohol or drug agreement.

“Where it is not possible for us to offer treatment we work with the NHS and other service providers to ensure that veterans receive the best possible care.”