THIRTY years ago tomorrow Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands and, within hours, a motley group of sailors, soldiers and airmen assembled to recapture them. Little did I or others know then that three decades later we would still be dealing with its casualties, particularly those suffering from the hidden scars of war.
A staff officer in Germany in April 1982, I was abruptly recalled in the middle of the night to be Deputy Commander of the SAS, a post I had only recently relinquished. My job this time was to be the communications bridge between London, the SAS’s operational base in Hereford and its commanding officer, more than 8,000 miles away.
Political and military orders were soon cascading over my desk on an hourly basis but, as spring changed to early summer, gradually my main task became that of dealing with the aftermath of those who had been killed or wounded.
At the sharp end, this included making arrangements for the parachuting of “battle casualty replacements” into the freezing South Atlantic, whilst at the Hereford base there was the harrowing task of notifying next of kin. Evidence for coroners had to be provided at the same time as memorial services were organised. There was no Wootton Bassett-like repatriation because of the sheer distance involved.
Following the sinking of several ships, fierce land battles began to take place, with casualties mounting on both sides. The workload, albeit from the safety of a desk, was at times overwhelming, but eventually was rewarded by the Argentine surrender crossing my desk via satellite communications. The horror, even for someone not squelching (or yomping) across the bleak Falklands, was finally at an end.
Or so it seemed at the time. Yet here I am still dealing with the human aftermath of this short but brutal war. As the main fundraiser for the charity Combat Stress in Scotland, I continue to discover just what it was really like to be on vessels such as HMS Sheffield and vulnerable to sinking by Exocet missile; or to be mowing down Argentine conscripts at Goose Green; or to be fixing bayonets in the night charge to recover Mount Tumbledown.
The thud of bombs, the nauseous smell of burning, stepping on a hidden mine, interspersed with the screaming of jet engines and the cries of the wounded and dying are film-like images that continue to haunt the minds of many sailors, Paras, Marines and Scots Guardsmen who were there. They survived, but in many ways are still trapped in the South Atlantic.
However, they are no longer battling alone and are now receiving assistance from skilled and dedicated nursing teams working in Combat Stress’s treatment centre at Hollybush House, Ayrshire, or in the community. Some have waited years before reporting their predicament and may have lost their jobs and their families as a result.
Whatever the individual circumstances, the first step always is an assessment, followed by a care plan, which in the case of chronic mental illness, may be a lifelong one. Thereafter, in conjunction with GPs and the NHS, veterans continue to be provided with appropriate levels and types of medication, and in particular anything that improves sleep patterns. Individual and group trauma therapy such as cognitive behaviour or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) are on offer, whilst supplementary support includes aromatherapy, acupuncture, reflexology, art and crafts, and gardening.
Recreating a group atmosphere amongst former servicemen is the treatment that sets Combat Stress apart from others, and is something a doctor’s surgery can never hope to emulate. Some veterans, in the company of their nurses, have even been back on subsidised RAF flights to revisit San Carlos Water, Port Stanley and the like, in order to help expunge their demons.
However, apart from being attacked from the air, the nightmares of 1982 are no different to those suffered since through service in Northern Ireland, Bosnia/Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan. For today’s serving soldiers and veterans, one single message seems to be key: “Speak up – and speak up early”. Silence is otherwise one of the main enemies which today could be stalking our Jocks out in landlocked Helmand Province. «
» Clive Fairweather is one of Scotland’s chief fundraisers for Combat Stress (www.combatstress.org.uk). Combat Stress 24-hour helpline: 0800 138 1619