Flagship BBC One current affairs documentary series Panorama has discovered 50 cases of suicide amongst serving soldiers and veterans in 2012. That is more than were killed in action the programme tonight will reveal.
The figure is much higher than the seven confirmed military suicides that the Ministry of Defence reported to Parliament last month.
As the MoD doesn’t track what happens to veterans, no one knows how many are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or have taken their own lives.
Broken By Battle – A Panorama Special will be shown at 9pm. The programme spent a year analysing information from coroners, local papers and military contacts. Panorama also submitted a Freedom of Information request to the MoD which revealed that in addition to the seven suicides from last year, there are a further 14 cases awaiting an inquest where the facts indicate the person took their own life.
The Freedom of Information response also revealed that the number of soldiers diagnosed with PTSD after serving in Afghanistan has more than doubled in the past three years.
The documentary will look at a number of cases including Lance Sergeant Dan Collins who joined the army at 16 and served in the Welsh Guards for more than 10 years. In the summer of 2009, Dan fought in Operation Panther’s Claw in Helmand Province Afghanistan. He twice survived being shot and was blown off his feet by a roadside bomb. After seeing his close friend killed in front of him, his mum Deana noticed a change in him.
The phone calls changed. And I remember him telling me, ‘Mum, this place is hell on earth. And I just want to get out of here’.
After a six-month tour during which 81 British soldiers were killed, the Welsh Guards returned home. The army diagnosed Dan with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After 10 months of intermittent treatment, the army told Dan he’d recovered and would soon be ready to return to duty. He tried to kill himself twice over the next few months.
Following an overdose of anti-depressants, Dan was admitted to an NHS psychiatric ward. As the army no longer has residential units for soldiers with PTSD, he had to be cared for in an NHS ward.
After five weeks in the NHS ward, Dan was released and moved back in with his girlfriend. His flashbacks began to get worse and he started missing his weekly NHS appointments.
On New Year’s Eve 2011, Dan left Vicky, put on his army uniform and the bandana he’d worn in Afghanistan, and drove into the Preseli Mountains. He recorded a farewell video to his mother and hanged himself.
More than a year after Dan Collins died, there has still been no inquest. The inquest could not take place until the MoD finished its internal investigation, which it delivered to the coroner last week.
Jason Rathbone served in Royal Artillery during the first Gulf War, and now runs a veterans’ charity. He holds a weekly support group for former soldiers struggling with PTSD. He notes:
The MOD have behaved like a cheap insurance company. In battle we understand you can be sacrificed to win a war but the same shouldn’t be true on leaving the services. It’s pure dereliction of duty really. They’ve not just turned their back on us. It feels as though they’ve gone out of their way to turn their back on us.
Ryan Ward was 19 when he went to Afghanistan last year. He was manning a checkpoint close to where Dan Collins fought, when an Afghan sergeant turned up at the checkpoint, saying he had a broken ankle. After a medic was called, the man was taken inside, where he pulled a gun from under his cloak and shot two of the soldiers.
Our Ryan saw what was happening, shot the Afghan sergeant, knocked him off his chair. They all rushed in with their guns and finished him off. – Ryan’s father Richard told Panorama
The army has a system called Trauma Risk Management or TRiM to identify soldiers at risk of developing PTSD after major incidents. Ryan was assessed within 72 hours and found to have no signs of trauma. According to its own TRiM guidelines, the army should have assessed him again after a month but didn’t.
Six weeks after the incident, Ryan returned home with his unit and went to his Sergeant’s funeral. The day after the funeral he hanged himself. Three months after Ryan’s death an inquest was held. The coroner concluded that he couldn’t be sure why Ryan killed himself. The army argued that there was nothing to suggest Ryan was at risk.
Is it a coincidence that he took his life the day after Sgt Thursby’s funeral? Now come on. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to work that out. That’s just not a coincidence. He is a casualty of war. And I don’t think he’ll be the last either. – Ryan’s father Richard
The families have now decided to petition the government, demanding changes to the way it deals with PTSD. They have asked them to reinstate residential units for PTSD victims, to ensure army medical notes are passed onto the NHS, to improve checks on veterans’ welfare and to change a culture in which soldiers are afraid to ask for help.
Broken By Battle – A Panorama Special will be shown tonight at 9pm on BBC One.