A land fit for heroes-1999

Twenty-five percent of homeless men sleeping on the streets of London are ex-servicemen (Times, 3 August). The smelly, aggressive drunk on Hungerford Bridge was once a hero! A survey carried out in 1993 concluded that the main cause of homelessness and its consequences is the breakdown of relationships and alcoholism, and these develop during military service. So there it is—the even more important question is: “Are these heroes fit for the land?”, and the worrying answer is “apparently not”. It is not just the so-called positive side of the Armed Forces, teaching discipline and how to feel you’re doing a great job killing fellow workers you’ve never seen before and who’ve done you no harm, but the side-effects of living in these conditions. Only recently has there been an admission that life in the Forces can easily make you unfit for life outside.

Major Colin Crawford of Combat Stress, which provides counselling to 5,000 ex-service personnel (of whom five percent are women) says that military culture and rituals act as a support for members who’ve had traumatic experiences. When they return to civilian life that support is missing and relationships fall apart under the strain. The Forces concentrate on bonding among personnel and life is lived to a strict pattern of parades, drills and uniforms, but they receive no training or advice on how to cope with a return to civilian life. Officers are not taught that the Forces’ way is not acceptable in “Civvy Street” and that, for example, an order to an office junior to get them a cup of tea will receive a dusty answer, or even simple things like the meaning of “cash-back” in a supermarket. In the Forces you are taught to hide and discipline your feelings and traumas and stresses of what they may have seen or suffered cannot be discussed leading to further isolation or heavy drinking. The latter, the major leisure occupation in the Forces is, at worst, encouraged and at best ignored.

The problem is not confined to this country. In the USA twice as many ex-servicemen committed suicide after the Vietnam war than were killed during it. At last the problem has been recognised and self-help groups are being formed to assist in the transition back to civilian life. However, Soldiers to be (Part 1, BBC1, 10 August) showing the training and discipline expected before men and women are even accepted into the Forces, depressingly illustrates how much work needs to be done (and undone) to give ex-members a chance of successfully returning to civilian life. After “serving their country” they may have escaped death or physical mutilation but their experience has left them scarred for life. What made them part of an effective fighting machine has made them incapable of maintaining normal relationships within the family and friends or coping with the different stresses of working under capitalism.


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