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There was a respectful hush in the room. An image of a soldier handling a mortar shell on the screen gave a hint of what was to come. Stuart Kelly began the session by confessing that he didn’t enjoy Aftershock. He found it difficult, harrowing and humbling and said that if it achieves one thing, it should effect political change.
Matthew began with a 90 second video. Technical glitches ruined the effect, but already the hairs on the back of my neck were beginning to stand on end.
There are two things, explained Matthew, which prevent discussion about this difficult subject of ex-soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life when they return home from war. One is the stigma of mental health problems and the other is our reluctance to talk about them.
To research the book Matthew embedded himself with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who came forward wanted to be helped and to help others to heal by sharing their stories.
Features of PTSD are inability to control anger, anxiety and panic attacks. Small triggers in everyday situations can cause flashbacks which the person believes to be real. Memories play out again and again in the person’s mind. This is a complex subject which is explored further in the book. Many ex-soldiers seek comfort in alcohol or drugs to numb their pain. However, health authorities are reluctant to treat them until they are free of their addiction.
Matthew told us a harrowing story of a fit young man of 22 who came back from Afghanistan after witnessing his friend being killed. The council gave him a house which had been occupied by an old man and fitted with ramps and rails. The young man killed himself seven months after moving into the house. Adequate housing is usually only provided after much lobbying by the ex-soldiers’ families.
Despite this, says Matthew, Scotland is on the whole better at providing help for PTSD sufferers than England. NHS Tayside is developing a fascinating new therapy where the patient is asked to choose a powerful animal as a companion to help them deal with difficult situations. But simple talking therapy doesn’t help. These soldiers are a danger to themselves and others. One traumatised young man tried to cut off his own hand.
There was a question from the floor about whether ex-soldiers were more likely to commit crime. The answer was that there is a relationship between serving in combat and committing an offence, but what is shocking is that no figures exist to show exactly how many ex-soldiers are in prison.
What legacy did Matthew want the book to leave? He wants to paint an accurate picture of the suffering. He sees it as a manifesto – our current system for helping victims of post-war trauma is not fit for purpose. He hopes it will kick-start conversations and be a catalyst for change.
Why do some suffer and others not? Soldiers who have had trauma in the past are more likely to suffer PTSD. Matthew believes that the Government uses past trauma as an excuse, where actually they have a greater duty of care to these men.
Stuart closed the session by suggesting that Matthew sends a copy of the book to MPs to start conversations about this very difficult and complex subject.