Monday, 23 July 2007

Falklands War 25.



Part one





Part Two


A land unfit for heroes

This week, Falklands war veterans commemorate their victory 25 years ago. About 300 men who came home will be missing from the parades. They have killed themselves. Many more are battling suicide, and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are swelling their ranks. This is their story — and they’re angry
Report: Michael Bilton
Connecting a vacuum-cleaner hose to his car, Ian Cubbold, 60, switched on the engine, took sleeping tablets and lay down to inhale the lethal exhaust fumes and die at his home near Yeovil, Somerset, in 1993.
There were no such preparations made by Colin Dreary, aged 31. He simply picked up a knife and stabbed himself to death at his home in Sunderland in 1994.
Mark Crown, 39, died in June 1995. He handcuffed one hand to his car steering wheel, doused himself with petrol and set himself ablaze. He left a wife and two children.
Jim Laker was 37 in September 1997 when he launched himself off the roof of a building in Aldershot. Stephen Rawlins, a guardsman aged 38, hanged himself at his father’s home in south Wales on Remembrance Day, 2000.
Martin Harbert, 44, hanged himself, leaving three children, in May 2001. Charles Bruce, 46, threw himself out of a plane without a parachute in January 2002. John Hunt, 39, took an overdose of pills in June 2002, at his home in Calne, Wiltshire. That same year, Godfrey Williams, 40, died in Llandeilo, south Wales, after stabbing himself in the heart with a bayonet.
They were policemen, teachers, lorry drivers and care workers or simply unemployed. But they had one thing in common. They were all Falklands war veterans, they had all suffered post-traumatic disorders, and they were all failed by the system.
It’s hardly surprising that some soldiers and sailors who experience the full horrors of war fail to readjust to civilian life. Haunted by their experiences, terrorised by flashbacks, they develop psychiatric disorders and, in spite of the support of family or friends, succumb to suicide.
What is surprising is that these nine men represent a roll call that shames Britain.
A total of 255 British servicemen died during the conflict. But around 300 veterans – the equivalent of half a battalion of fighting men – have died by their own hand since the Argentine surrender to the British task force on June 14, 1982, in Port Stanley. This week marks the 25th anniversary. Up and down the country there will be celebrations, parades and reunions to mark the event. It is likely that every ex-serviceman who served knows of a comrade who will not be among the parade participants. The services of remembrance will pay homage to those who lost their lives during the war – but who will pay homage to those who lost their lives during the peace? Those, and their families, consigned by their untreated, unrecognised and largely ignored cries for help to depression, alcoholism, violence and suicide.
And the forgotten army of the post-war Falklands dead raises the terrible spectre of suicide, violence, addiction and family break-up for many thousands more in the decades to come. As servicemen who have returned from the Gulf war, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they find themselves lost in the no-man’s-land of civilian life and the creaking healthcare system.
Amazingly, nobody knows the precise number of Falklands veterans’ suicides. Not the government, the Ministry of Defence, the army, navy, RAF or even the individual regiments themselves.
The figure assessed by the South Atlantic Medal Association (SAMA), which represents the veterans, is roughly 300. Unofficially, some statisticians, citing Gulf war studies, believe this figure may not be wide of the mark. Argentina’s veterans believe 460 of their men have died by their own hand.
There are no official British figures because no government has bothered to commission a study or keep a tally of what happened to the Falklands veterans, despite warnings from psychiatrists and military doctors that thousands of men were suffering from PTSD in the aftermath of the war.
Servicemen with symptoms of traumatic stress got help – if they asked for it. Most did not. Overwhelmingly, Falklands veterans with PTSD were too ashamed or in denial. Many involved in the hand-to-hand fighting in 1982 suffered extreme symptoms, often descending into drug and alcohol dependency.
Because they went undiagnosed, many went untreated. Their lives became chaotic and some saw suicide as a way out. A study by a medical officer in the Parachute Regiment in 1987 showed that 50% of a sample group of paras who fought in the Falklands were suffering PTSD symptoms, including 22% who had the full condition.
They might have been better off coming home from the Napoleonic wars 200 years ago.Military hospitals at Catterick, Woolwich, Wroughton, Plymouth and Portsmouth have closed under Ministry of Defence (MoD) streamlining. They had all built up huge expertise over the years, dealing with servicemen’s health problems including PTSD. The Royal Navy hospital at Haslar in Portsmouth’s naval base finally closed only this spring – after 250 years of providing healthcare. It opened in the 1750s, providing respite for “navy lunatics” – sailors and marines damaged in the line of duty. The patients were given extra comforts. Instead of the regulation 14lb of horsehair stuffed into bedding they had 21lb of horsehair, to provide for sound sleep.
The “naval lunatic” was regarded as someone who had simply lost their reason, either through disease, grief or accident, a latter-day diagnosis of what we call PTSD. These patients differed from hopeless cases, who were described as “idiotic”. In the 1980s and 90s, Haslar – under Surgeon Commander Morgan O’Connell – treated hundreds of Falklands veterans suffering from psychological damage.
Crucial to recovery in Britain’s military hospitals was the very culture in which people were treated. Everyone – patients and staff – understood what these soldiers, sailors and airmen had been through.
In place of service hospitals and clinics, the government presumed the NHS could up huge expertise over the years, dealing with servicemen’s health problems including PTSD. The Royal Navy hospital at Haslar in Portsmouth’s naval base finally closed only this spring – after 250 years of providing healthcare. It opened in the 1750s, providing respite for “navy lunatics” – sailors and marines damaged in the line of duty. The patients were given extra comforts. Instead of the regulation 14lb of horsehair stuffed into bedding they had 21lb of horsehair, to provide for sound sleep.
The “naval lunatic” was regarded as someone who had simply lost their reason, either through disease, grief or accident, a latter-day diagnosis of what we call PTSD. These patients differed from hopeless cases, who were described as “idiotic”. In the 1980s and 90s, Haslar – under Surgeon Commander Morgan O’Connell – treated hundreds of Falklands veterans suffering from psychological damage.
Crucial to recovery in Britain’s military hospitals was the very culture in which people were treated. Everyone – patients and staff – understood what these soldiers, sailors and airmen had been through.
In place of service hospitals and clinics, the government presumed the NHS could carry the burden – paradoxically, the MoD continued closing Britain’s military hospitals while sending more and more troops to fight overseas in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, the greatest number of soldiers, sailors and airmen deployed since the Korean war.
When serving personnel fall ill, the MoD pays for private clinics. But ex-servicemen have to rely on GPs and outpatients departments at NHS hospitals that are under-resourced, inexperienced in the specialist treatment required, and overstretched.
Often veterans need the most desperate help when they are going through an immediate crisis – triggered by flashbacks and haunting memories of death and horror. Many cash-strapped primary care trusts refuse to pay for private treatment of these conditions at psychiatric clinics. The Falklands veterans compete for NHS care with people still in the military. Both serving members of the armed forces and ex-servicemen have been refused private medical insurance cover for PTSD.
Now an even bigger catastrophe looms. Late-onset PTSD often occurs 10 to 12 years after a traumatic event. Major General Robin Short, a retired head of army medical services, says an express train is waiting to hit the NHS buffers when ex-servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan develop late-onset PTSD.
More than 2,000 soldiers returning from Iraq have already been officially diagnosed with PTSD. More are returning from Afghanistan. Research has shown that former soldiers and sailors are reluctant to seek help from GPs in case they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act, when they admit to suicidal thoughts. They frequently refuse to be treated in psychiatric hospitals with civilians, where the NHS staff have little or no understanding of the traumas of war. When you hear their stories, you begin to understand why.
In Bolton, Lancashire, two former paratroopers are reminiscing. Jim Meredith, 51, and Les Standish, 46, first met nearly 30 years ago when they were posted to Ulster. The two men fought in the same company together at Goose Green.
Meredith refused medication for years. Now he is using antipsychotic drugs to save his long-term relationship. He confirms that veterans have a phobia about being thought mentally ill. They say they have an illness caused by the war.
“You meet me and Les face-to-face and there are two different kinds of people. We are very sociable but there are two people inside us.
A nice guy who will shake your hand and say, ‘It’s my round’, ‘I’ll get you a pint’, ‘I’ll push your car and help start it for you’. But inside is the other psychopathic bastard who will go for you and rip your f***ing head off. Pardon my French, but that’s the way we are.
“Some of the stuff we’ve done you would not believe. They did some terrible things on the Falklands. If you join the Parachute Regiment, you crave war.
You crave a battle. You crave to use your weapon in anger, you are given knives, hand grenades. We are not trained to shoot at targets. We were trained to shoot at people. You cannot begin to imagine the depths of it.”
Lately, Jim Meredith has been helping his friend recover from a relapse of complex PTSD. Standish had been sleeping in his car, afraid he might become violent, “exploding” as he experienced flashbacks he thought were long forgotten. He had been in a road-rage incident and lost it. This year, in the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the war, he had been dredging up dark thoughts, drinking heavily.
Les Standish’s most urgent desire is to repair his second marriage and be a father once more to his two stepchildren. A thoughtful, articulate man, he loves his family and is desperate to succeed. Agreeing a few months ago to co-operate with the research for this article, he was outwardly buoyant and confident. But as the 25th anniversary neared, more ex-soldiers were calling him, some traumatised by their own memories. Within weeks, Standish was also in despair. He was having nightmares, waking up screaming. He had been taught to write down his dreams on paper. “I get little white flashes that simulate bullets coming through my head and then I am back in the war, and I remember everything and I just relive it over and over again.”
His marriage to Rachel, who trains guide dogs for the blind, had crumbled and he was clearly desperate and frightened. He blamed himself. He had, he said, been in denial about his behaviour at home. He had become selfish and inconsiderate towards his wife, too much of a disciplinarian towards his stepchildren, treating them like they were in the army. He was drinking at home to block out his thoughts – typical behaviour. Eventually Rachel could take no more. Les took off in alarm. For a while he lived in his car until Jim Meredith took him in. Then he made a desperate three-hour journey to re-visit an elderly psychiatrist in Anglesey, who he says saved his life almost 13 years ago. The story of Les Standish’s journey over the past 25 years is remarkable. It does not, however, make comfortable reading.
May, 1982, Goose Green. In a conflict that had seemed unimaginable just two months earlier, 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (2 Para), was going into action. This was the real thing.
Standish, 21, a lance corporal, had been on his honeymoon in Torremolinos, Spain, when he was summoned back to his barracks at Aldershot. Seven weeks later, 8,000 miles from home, 2 Para were freezing their backsides off, dug in overlooking Falkland Sound where they watched Royal Navy ships bombed and strafed by Argentine jets. Then his section leader got trench foot and Standish found himself in charge of eight men, about to storm a series of enemy trenches.
“Nothing can prepare you for what actually happened. We would throw in grenades, jump in the trench and kill the enemy. In the trench it was him or me. I did that. Then we move on to the next one. The adrenaline takes over. Now, I see the fear in the Argentine faces that I killed. They were trying to kill us but we were elite forces in a battle with conscripts aged 18 or 19. They did not have a cat in hell’s chance. Bang, bang and away you go.
“There was a young boy who knew he was going to die when I shot him. He was not pointing his weapon, but he had it in his hand and potentially he could have shot me. When you get into contact with someone you can see the face just go white, their eyes wide open, and he just knew he was going to die. You had no time to reflect on what you had done.
“In Goose Green itself, later, I thought, ‘F***, yeah, he did not point that weapon at me.’ Did I have to kill him? I saw the look on his face. I thought, ‘Why that particular boy?’ Then I pulled myself together and thought, ‘No, it was either him or me.’ I brushed it away. It’s a brutal process. You do it without thinking. The thinking comes afterwards. I killed nine people. One Argentine I had to kill with a bayonet on my rifle. I stabbed him several times. It troubles me to this day.”
The battle lasted for more than 36 hours. In the early morning light his section was caught in open ground with the rest of their platoon. Pinned down and exposed, fusilades of enemy machinegun fire zinged around them. They withdrew, but as they did so, one soldier was shot through the leg and fell wounded. Standish went back under fire and dragged the soldier to safety. For this he later received the Military Medal for gallantry.
But they were running out of bullets. A fallen para ahead of them had a belt of ammunition, so Standish tasked one of his best mates, Stephen Illingsworth, to move forward to retrieve it. Within seconds Illingsworth was shot dead through the neck by a sniper. It broke his neck and severed his jugular vein. This is another of Standish’s haunting memories.
However, the most traumatic event he experienced happened not on the battlefield, but later, once Goose Green had fallen.
“When they surrendered, the Argentine prisoners got put in the sheep pens in the middle of the settlement. They had booby-trapped their own field guns. My job was to take an Argentine soldier and make the guns safe, so that we could use them if the need arose. When the Argentinian went to make the guns safe, the incendiary device blew up and in doing so blew the flesh and muscles off his legs, from the waist down. His bones were intact, his feet were still there. But you can imagine that from his waist up he was fine, from his waist down he was just bones. Because it was an incendiary, all his veins had fused so he was not bleeding. He was just kicking his bones up and down. The flesh from his legs went all over me and another Argentine prisoner nearby. We had both been standing about 10 or 15ft apart from each other when the explosion happened. He was there with all this gunk of human flesh and muscle all over him, and I was there with all this stuff over me and we had this Argentine soldier kicking his legs and asking for his mother. So we picked him up and took him to our aid post.
“I will never forget it. It was a big wooden table, because that is all we had, and all you could hear were his bones, his legs, banging on the table, tapping on the wood as he shouted for his mother. We tried to get a line in him to give him fluids. We couldn’t find his veins because his veins had retracted. So we had to get our medical officer, Steven Hughes, to cut his wrists, – it is called a cut down – and we got a line in his wrist and pumped a load of fluid into him. And I will never forget it…” And with this, Standish makes a loud rhythmic tapping noise with his knuckles on the table in front of him. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
“You could hear his legs banging on the table like that, crying for his mum, his bones exposed. There was not much flesh on them at all. You can imagine a skeleton, skeleton legs and from the waist up a normal body. And we just watched him die on the table. We just couldn’t do anything. I was 21 years old.”
More fierce fighting lay ahead. 2 Para joined the Battle for Wireless Ridge, overlooking Port Stanley, a few weeks later in the dying hours of the war.
Soon they were homeward bound. Standish had eight weeks’ leave with his new bride before his battalion was posted to Belize for six months. Four years later, he was out of the army. He wanted to spend time with his newborn son.
He says this was when his problems started. Back in Bolton he joined the prison service, became a PE teacher and ran the heavy-duty cell-removals squad inside Strangeways jail in Manchester. By his own admission he was a very hard man. He seemed to settle down, until the Strangeways prison riot, when 1,000 inmates broke out of their cells. Prison officers feared for their lives as they were attacked with scaffolding poles. Some took refuge inside the cells. Standish’s flashbacks of what happened at Goose Green started a year or so later.
His first marriage fell apart under the strain. He felt responsible for Stephen Illingsworth’s death on the battlefield, he saw the face of a young soldier he had killed and he re-visited the trauma of the Argentine PoW. Standish gave up his job at Strangeways.
What happened next took him to rock bottom. His wife and children needed money, so Standish, with connections in the Bolton underworld, joined the illegal circuit of bare-knuckle fighters who travel around Britain, betting on themselves at ad hoc venues in warehouses, empty factories and barns. A couple of hundred gamblers would turn up at the fights.
He fought 19 times, won 17, drew one and got badly hammered in one. It was vicious, exhausting, brutal stuff, as rough as it can get; blood and broken noses. There was no throwing in the towel. Last man standing was the winner. He walked away with a wad of cash.
He was also a collector for a local drug dealer. Standish never sold or handled drugs, nor did he use them. He says he merely collected the money after the deals were done.
“It was a matter of putting bread on the table,” he says. “My wife and children needed money, I had to pay the bills. I was like an aggressive bailiff. I did have to get hard with a few people, ‘throat’ them up against the wall and say, ‘Look, you have got to pay, and you have got to pay now.’ ”
He hit his own brick wall in the autumn of 1993 when he was arrested for conspiracy to supply drugs. Because he had been a prison officer at Strangeways, he could not be held on remand in jail. Instead he was kept in solitary confinement in a police station in Bolton. On learning of his gallantry medal in the Falklands, some police officers took pity on him. They got him a television for his cell and regularly brought in takeaway curries. Standish went into survival mode. He worked out a fitness regime for his small cell, pacing, moving, squatting, completing circuit after circuit of this tiny space. He did 2,000 press-ups and pull-ups a day. But left alone for hours to think, the flashbacks to the Falklands became more and more frequent. Standish began to plan his suicide.
It took him eight weeks to make a rope in secret. Before his sheets were changed, he would tear a small strip from one end where there was a narrow fold. He hid the strip and then threw the sheet into a bag for collection. He gradually plaited the dozens of tiny strips together, thick enough, strong enough to hang himself. He planned to die at Christmas, after nearly three months of solitary confinement.
What stopped him was a visit by his ex-wife on Christmas Eve. She brought their two young children with her, the first time he had seen them in months. Some weeks later, Standish’s sister Rita made contact with 2 Para’s medical officer, Dr Steven Hughes, who remembered her brother well, because the two had been in the aid post at Goose Green trying to save the life of the Argentine prisoner.
Hughes visited Standish at the police station, accompanied by a psychiatrist called Dr Dafydd Jones, who ran a clinic for ex-servicemen called Ty Gwyn in Llandudno, north Wales. This was a turning point. Standish says that Dr Jones saved his life – a sentiment offered to this day by countless numbers of ex-servicemen who have come under his care.
Sentenced to three years at his trial, Standish was allowed by the Home Office to serve his sentence at Denbigh Hospital in north Wales, where Jones was the consultant psychiatrist.Standish was then taken as a day patient to Ty Gwyn, where he underwent a prolonged treatment. The clinic itself had beds for a dozen or so veterans who could not get treatment elsewhere.
Here, Standish came to terms with his demons and learnt coping mechanisms through cognitive behavioural therapy. Some of the greatest help came from the mutual aid the veterans gave each other.
Ty Gwyn stands on the outskirts of Llandudno and had always struggled for funding. Eventually Jones, who had set up a series of one-day “clinics” around Britain to help ex-servicemen suffering from PTSD, found he was fighting a losing battle to keep Ty Gwyn open. Primary care trusts would no longer fund patients at the clinic.
The building has now been sold and is being re-developed as flats.
Standish finished his sentence, picked himself up and began helping other veterans in trouble with complex PTSD. He got a job in a security company working nights and now has a day job with an environmental cleaning company, clearing asbestos sites. He and his wife, Rachel, are planning a reconciliation.
In 2003 he returned to the Falklands by himself and revisited the exact spot where his friend Stephen Illingsworth died after being sent to retrieve ammunition. He says he can live with this now. It helped to walk the battlefield and take in the enormity of what they had done.
A bigger turning point had come a year earlier. An Argentine conscript called Alejandro Videla, who had fought at Goose Green, contacted a British ex-servicemen’s website. “Most of my mates told him to piss off, but I thought this was unfair. I struck up a correspondence with him.”
They chatted about their lives and families for months. Eventually, Standish raised money to bring Alejandro Videla to England, in November 2002. Standish took him home to Bolton and they attended a remembrance service together at a local war memorial.
It was only when they began chatting in person that the two men made an astounding discovery. “He was defending their left flank at Goose Green, and I was attacking our right flank. We realised that we must have been shooting at each other.
“Then something really scary happened. Alejandro began talking about this incident when it was over, when one of his friends was injured by an exploding booby trap. He had been covered with the flesh of this man, just like me, and had seen it all. He was standing a few feet away from me, when the explosion happened. Neither of us could believe it, meeting like that, after all those years.” They had both had the same nightmare.
Major-General Julian Thompson, who commanded 3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands, is critical of veterans’ treatment: “The defence procurement minister encapsulated the government’s attitude towards the armed services when he said, ‘I do not understand the rationale behind the calls for a dedicated military hospital.’ This ignorance extends to Falklands veterans who suffer from PTSD. They fought for us and are ignored, or consigned to NHS hospitals among people who do not comprehend what they experienced or what they suffer. Not just Falklands veterans; a soldier wounded in Iraq was told to take off his uniform in an NHS hospital because it might ‘offend people’. Truly, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’. Do we deserve to be guarded any more?”
The shocking truth is that PTSD is not just a potential death sentence for hundreds of ex-servicemen, but also a blight on their families. Since 2003, some 130,000 British men and women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Experts say that untreated PTSD cases are a time bomb ticking away in society at large
Read It Here

24/ 7 got those demons in my head
Asleep or awake its all the same
I’m not feeling sorry for myself
Not looking for someone to blame


Surely death will give me peace?
Or am I already there?
Walking this earth with PTSD
Next to the man without a care

I’m jealous of his happy life
Nice house and steady job
Big Brother soccer and down the pub
His sanity has not been robbed

Until the day he takes the piss
One look one thoughtless remark
He’s put me back on the battlefield
To him a silly lark

I should have stayed at home that day
With the demons in my head
Instead I went into your world
I’m sorry you’ve ended up dead.




© Mack (RG) The thoughts of a Falklands War Veteran