A national charity has called for a change in the law to settle a row at the heart of Government and make monitoring the rate of suicides among military veterans compulsory.
An investigation by the Post and its sister titles (JPIMedia Investigations) last summer – which prompted a national debate – revealed that the Government does not monitor how many former service personnel take their own lives, amid fears that the number of cases is spiralling.
Allied nations like the US, Australia and Canada all record the number of veteran suicides closely, having found significant increases in the past decade.
Campaigners say official UK figures are now also vital to help traumatised war heroes.
Since we highlighted the issue, Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood announced the Government would begin a study into suicide rates among veterans who previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also said in November that it was his ambition “to understand from every coroner whether an individual death is a veteran or not”.
However, JPIMedia Investigations can now reveal a row at the heart of Government over the issue, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) claiming it is not feasible for coroners to record veteran suicides.
MPs on the Defence Select Committee have also been keenly pursuing the issue of military mental health, publishing their first report last July. It recommended that the Ministry of Defence work with the justice departments across the four UK nations to work out from existing suicide records whether someone had been a veteran.
A second report by the committee, due to be published on Monday, is expected to further press the Government for progress.
Jeff Williams, a former Royal Marine sergeant major and campaigner with the Veterans Against Suicide group, said he is “devastated” to hear that the MoJ has ruled out support from coroners.
He said: “I am not surprised but I am pretty devastated because a lot of people in the veterans community have hung their hats on this happening.
“We were under the impression that this was in the late stages of being implemented and it wasn’t going to be a problem.”
His group has recorded the suspected suicide of five veterans and four serving members of the forces so far this year, with 80 former and current service personnel believed to have taken their lives in 2018.
It should be straightforward for coroners to ask families if their loved ones were veterans, he said.
His organisation can verify “with one phone call” whether someone was a veteran or not.
“This is just a cop-out in my opinion,” he said.
Dr Walter Busuttil, medical director of national veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, said it is now up to MPs to step in and make it a statutory responsibility on coroners to record veteran suicides. If they want to record things properly then they are going to have to change the law,” he said.
He said it sounded a viable idea for coroners’ IT systems to be linked to MoD pension records, to verify if someone was a veteran.
“There are precedents, it can be done,” he said.
However, the MoJ said it was too complex for coroners to record veteran suicides, in particular because of the potential difficulties of accurately establishing a victim’s occupational history.
“For this reason, there are no plans to require coroners to record this kind of information in the context of suicide conclusions,” a spokesperson said.
The MoD is considering how to respond to the setback. A spokeswoman said: “We take the well-being of all those who have served extremely seriously and we are currently considering how we can better understand the cohort of veterans who take their own lives.”
Last week Mr Ellwood, a former Royal Green Jackets Captain, offered a public apology to the grieving families of veterans and serving personnel who took their lives this year and last, vowing to fight on in addressing the issue.
War hero who considered taking his life says suicide among veterans is a ‘national crisis’
A Royal Artillery veteran who considered killing himself after leaving the armed forces said suicide among veterans is a “national crisis”.
Phil Burton, 43, who toured war-torn Bosnia three times and Northern Ireland twice during a 15-year career in the army before leaving in 2004, also called on the government to help ex-military personnel adapt to civilian life.
He said: “I don’t know how many more veterans have to pass before the government pulls its finger out.”
Phil, who lives in Leyland, , and runs a cafe for veterans, said he began to drink to cope around 12 months after being discharged.
“I was coming home from work and having one or two beers, then it was three or four,” he said.
The problem continued to escalate until he punched a mirror in a fit of rage.
It was then his wife Joanne, 41, a nurse at Royal Preston Hospital, stepped in to help Phil get support, but it followed thoughts of suicide.
Phil said: “I sat in the park and thought, ‘What is there to live for?’ I was sat crying wondering what to do with myself. It [suicide] did cross my mind.
“Maybe I’m lucky because I was strong enough to pull through with the support of my wife and family.
“Others don’t have that support and that’s why, eventually, they take their own lives.”
Phil said he challenged the Prime Minister Theresa May last year, when he went to Downing Street to be awarded for his work at the Veterans’ Cafe, telling her there needs to be “some form of support” for veterans in need of helping adjusting.
He added: “When you join, you get trained for 12 months and they knock you back to basics and build you into what they want you to be.
“When you leave, they open the door and you’re out.
“ I was lucky that my wife brought me out the drink, but you can lose your job, your home, and your family life.
“It’s a downwards spiral. Before you know it, you are committing crime to get your fix or drink or drugs and you get to the point of no return or you end up in jail.
“Every veteran at some point is having some form of issue or breakdown.
“What we are asking for is that support network. Train us back to what we need to be.”
Alf Clempson, the county council’s armed forces champion, joined the Scots Guards from Blackpool in 1983, when he was 16. He served around the world for 24 years and left at the rank of warrant officer class two.
He said “mental health among veterans is a growing issue” and he, and several groups including the NHS, University of Central Lancashire, army, and the Lancashire Military Hub, financed by the Ministry of Defence’s military covenant fund, are “making veterans aware of available services”.
He added: “I believe real progress is being made in improving veterans’ mental health provision here in Lancashire and knowing all the facts is important, so I will be doing all in my power to identify the real situation with regards to the number of veterans who have taken their own lives.”
‘Recording figures would help’
Preston councillor Drew Gale works across the North West helping injured soldiers adapt back to civilian life.
He said he believes there “is a problem” with poor mental health in veterans, but said that, without hard data, it’s hard for the government to properly tackle the issue.
“Recording figures would help direct resources appropriate in areas of greater need,” the Preston councillor and former armed forces champion said.
“For example, a large percentage of recruits come from the North West and are sent back to the North West.
“It could be argued, with data, that more money needs to be directed to help combat poor mental health.”
Coun Gale, who works for a charity and is based at Fulwood Barracks in Lancashire, said poor mental health in veterans is an “ongoing” and “historical” issue dating back more than a century, and added: “Our brave fighting men and women are subjected to horrific circumstances and, as such, we should be looking at improving the aftercare given to that community.
“There’s good work being done now, but it can always be better.”
Do you need help?
If you are affected by any of the issues raised by this article, help and advice is available from these organisations:
Veterans Gateway: 0808 802 1212 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Veterans UK: 0808 1914218 (8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)
Samaritans: 116 123 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Help for Heroes: 01980 844280 (weekdays, between 9am and 5pm
Royal British Legion: 0808 802 8080 (8am to 8pm, 7 days a week)