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The Independent is running a petition campaigning for all necessary treatment for our armed forces veterans. Of course they face problems in getting the best medical and surgical facilities to deal with injuries the rest of us cannot bear to think about. But there are unseen and enduring injuries to the mind.
Men and women in the armed services experience things beyond imagining. They are working – fighting – at and beyond the limit of what humanity can give and take. In the pressure of the moment they cannot stop to think.
But inevitably, when it’s all over – between tours of duty, during hospitalisation and when they leave the service – the assimilation process begins. But the material they have to confront is not digestible. There will be images, memories, questions, guilt and above all there will be alienation from the everyday world.
The things that concern the rest of us, that make us worried, angry, tearful, proud, elated and happy must seem utterly out of scale with what veterans of conflict have dealt with. Life around them afterwards must seem like looking through the wrong end of a telescope – small, far away, unimportant and lacking the adrenaline of the ultimate challenge. The change is abrupt and many cannot adjust.
Injuries may, to a degree, be put aside. Knowledge, though, once with you is with you for life. And the sort of knowledge veterans have is almost biblical in its impact. It is, profoundly, the knowledge of good and evil. We cannot know or imagine what it is but we can imagine its impact.
And we need to. Our veterans get virtually no help with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from which very many suffer and which does not always make itself known for up to two years after leaving the service. They get no help with the depressions that regularly lead to suicide. And they get no help with the anger and with the very different value-set that can lead them to commit murder and other crimes.
This is an issue not much discussed. But we require these young people, in their service, to set aside the values and the moral and behavioural codes that govern normal life. They have to use force, they have to kill and, don’t let’s be naive, they have to torture.
Do we really think they can leave the service one day, walk into our world never to return and leave behind them everything they have lived with and by through these experiences – just like that?
For as long as we choose to send people to do for us what we cannot and would not do for ourselves, we are responsible for them for the rest of their lives. This is what we mean when we talk about ‘the military covenant’.
But the government which acts in our name is neither exercising that responsibility not absorbing its moral imperative.
We have The Argylls – The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, or 5 Scots as they are now known, whose service in Iraq and Afghanistan brings this close to home. But it is a moral issue of individual responsibility. In Meditation XVII, the poet John Donne wrote: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’.
Sign The Independent’s campaign petition online and at the same site, donate, if you wish, directly to veterans.
The photograph above is protected by British Crown Copyright. It shows Johnson Beharry, holder of the Victoria Cross, in front of a mural of the Victoria Cross at the Ministry Of Defence Main Building on 18th March 2005.
He was awarded the VC for valour in Iraq for incidents in May and June 2004, when he twice rescued fellow servicemen from ambushes, sustaining serious head injuries in the latter engagement. His investment with the Victoria Cross – the first award in over 20 years – was on 27th April 2005.
Lance Coporal Beharry has very recently spoken out on behalf of traumatised troops.