Revealed: Hidden toll of tragic veterans '˜falling through the cracks'

The number of UK veterans who take their own lives is being overlooked by the Scottish and Westminster governments, allowing the Ministry of Defence to 'turn a blind eye' to the human cost of conflict, a Johnston Press investigation has found.

Aaron Black had his medals beside him when he died. Picture: Paul Reid

Figures for former service personnel taking their own lives – available to the Scottish and Westminster governments – are withheld from scrutiny by the general public.

However, the investigation has confirmed 16 veteran suicides since January. The former head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord West, is among a number of high-profile figures saying it would “make absolute sense” to collect the data.

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The Crown Office and Scottish Government were unable to provide data. The vast majority of equivalent organisations across England, Wales and Northern Ireland were also unable to give meaningful data or did not reply.

Campaigners warn the numbers are set to rise, with the country facing a “ticking time bomb” of veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mental health issues who become increasingly affected by memories of their experiences in conflicts such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Leading campaigner Rose Gentle, from Glasgow, whose 19-year-old son Gordon was killed in Iraq in 2004, told JP Investigations she believes both the Scottish Government and Westminster are “embarrassed” by the scale of the problem.

Ms Gentle said: “The situation for boys leaving the services now is just as bad as it ever was.”

Each year approximately 18,000 service personnel leave the UK armed forces, with a “significant minority” at risk of falling through the cracks.

Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar is calling for the Scottish and Westminster governments to carry out an immediate review and release annual figures on veterans’ suicide rates.

“It is imperative the figures on veteran suicides are released so that pressure is put on the Scottish and Westminster governments,’ Mr Anwar said.

“It’s an absolute disgrace that figures which are available to governments and are kept hidden. It smacks of an official cover-up,” said Mr Anwar.

“I suspect the figures are deeply embarrassing which is why they are hiding them, being obstructive and refusing to release them.

“They know that the finger of blame would rightly be pointed at them for neglecting veterans who end up jobless, homeless and without real medical support. This neglect has been well-documented for years and years.

“I also don’t buy the official explanation that the figures are withheld for reasons of confidentiality.

“The truth is they would make shocking reading.”

The tragic case of homeless ex-soldier Darren Greenfield, who died a week before Christmas last year while sleeping rough in Edinburgh, sparked 
outrage among veterans’ charities.

Lee Knifton, head of Mental Health Foundation Scotland, the mental health charity, said data was key to targeting at-risk groups.

“If we were clearer about the scale of suicide among veterans and indeed other professions it would help to better inform suicide prevention strategies.”

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“That shows their lack of concern and lack of respect for veterans.”

Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son Gordon, of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in Iraq in 2004, said she was giving her overwhelming support to the Johnston Press investigation.

Ms Gentle, from Pollock in Glasgow, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Glasgow last year for her campaigning to improve conditions and military equipment for service personnel, said: “The Government is embarrassed in case the true figures come out.

“It’s wrong that the information on veteran suicides is kept hidden. They should have “veteran” there beside the list of occupations to let people understand what’s happening.

“Over the years since Gordon’s death the stories I’ve heard from soldiers coming out the army are heartbreaking. I think they feel they can speak to me because I’m “Gordon’s mum.”

Ms Gentle became a high-profile and outspoken critic of the UK’s handling of the war and set up Military Families Against the War and the Justice 4 Gordon Gentle campaigns.

Describing what she hears from vulnerable veterans, Ms Gentle said: “They come out the services and many are struggling. They have lots of flashbacks, they’re so depressed and just can’t handle it.

“A lot of them are lost, a lot don’t know where to turn.

“The situation for boys leaving the services now is just as bad as it ever was.

“Basically, it all gets back to what they’ve seen. And then they’ve got to come back and live with it, the nightmares, and at the same time trying to get their lives going again. A lot end up homeless and struggling. They are just really depressed and feel that life is not worth living.

“It can take 10 or 15 years or more for them to admit to what’s happening to them. But we’re going to see more of it in the future.

“When they come out the army a lot of them just want to be on their own to have time to think, to clear their head. But it’s not that easy.

“The services need to be giving them a lot more help and contact numbers before they leave and come out and say that these boys are a special group needing extra help.”

“It’s charities that are mostly helping these boys, not the government.”

Combat Stress, the UK-wide charity working with veterans with PTSD and other mental health conditions have seen a 143 per cent rise in referrals over the past ten year.

North of the border, figures from January 2018 show that the charity had 365 registered veterans, with 253 referred to its services for the first time in 2016.

Lee Knifton, head of Mental Health Foundation Scotland, the mental health campaigning charity, said accurate statistics on veterans’ suicides were vital to prevent further tragedies.

“If we were clearer about the scale of suicide among veterans and indeed other professions it would help to better inform suicide prevention strategies.

“Understanding the data is crucial if we are to target key “at risk groups”.

“Data, for example, should help to inform local suicide prevention work and help shape national campaigns and policy.

“The mental health problems experienced by military personnel are broadly the same as the general population, although experiences during service and the transition to civilian life mean that their mental ill health may be triggered by different factors.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and substance abuse affect a significant minority of service personnel and veterans.

“Only a very small number of regular service personnel are discharged annually for mental health reasons across the UK. However some veterans develop mental health problems after leaving service, many of whom will be experiencing PTSD.

“Veterans’ mental health problems may be made worse or caused by post-service factors, such as the difficulty in making the transition to civilian life, marital problems, and loss of family and social support networks.

“Younger veterans are at high risk of suicide in the first two years after leaving service. Ex-service personnel are also vulnerable to social exclusion and homelessness, both of which are risk factors for mental ill health. Alcohol misuse is also high.

“Over the past year we’ve been engaging with the Scottish Government about the delivery of a radical and ambitious new suicide prevention action plan.

“One of our key asks is the creation of a new national body with teeth and resource to drive forward suicide prevention work.

“One of the body’s remits could be to improve the use of evidence, data and guidance on suicide prevention and make recommendations on improving recording methods. he said.