The news that there are more ex-service personnel occupying UK prisons than there are troops fighting in Afghanistan should be a cause for real concern. Research conducted by the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) found that there are 20,000 veterans in the criminal justice system, 8,500 behind bars and 12,500 on probation or parole. The survey of 90 probation case histories of convicted veterans shows a majority with chronic alcohol or drug problems, and nearly half suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as a result of their wartime experiences on active service. Those involved had served in the North of Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are most likely to have been convicted of a violent offence, particularly domestic violence.
The figures lift the lid on a ticking time bomb that has steadily been primed to explode in the home population for years. The conflict in the North of Ireland has no doubt provided many of those 20,000 veterans. For most of that conflict there was little recognition of the effects of combat stress on the individuals concerned.One early victim in the North was former squaddie Jimmy Johnson, who suffered from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had flashbacks to incidents that had happened to him in Belfast. On one occasion after he left the service he was out with mates one Saturday night in the north east. Johnson finished up hospitalising a number of people in a fight but the next day could recall little. Later another flashback resulted in his beating another individual to death. He finished up in jail. After serving his sentence Johnson came out still undiagnosed. As a result some months later he had another flashback and killed another individual. Again he was sent to prison. It was only due to meeting a struck off doctor in prison who recognised the PTSD symptoms that he learnt of the condition. At that time in the mid 1990s the prison service could not provide figures regarding the number of ex-service personnel in the prison system. A psychiatrist at the time suggested there could at least be a prison full of just ex-service personnel. He was obviously right and the number has obviously grown incredibly over the past 15 years, as British forces have become engaged in more conflicts across the globe. Recognition of the personal cost and fall out of conflict has grown but resourcing of the support needed to help the victims has not.The North or Ireland situation alone has created many new inmates in the prison system. 30 years of conflict that saw thousands of soldiers taking on series of active service duties. Certainly for much of this period the Ministry of Defence were unwilling to admit PTSD was a real problem. A similar attitude was adopted to the condition known as Gulf Ward Syndrome. There were no doubt concerns about the possible compensation claims that could result but all the same this was a clear breach of the duty of care owed to service personnel. Now at least the MOD has admitted that PTSD and other conditions can result from active service involvement. There is clearly a duty of care owed to the soldiers who put their lives on the line to serve. However, the latest revelations must surely make the case for a proper investigation to be conducted into the true cost and effects of combat on the individual concerned and the society as a whole. It is a failure of the system that sees 20,000 ex-service personnel finishing up in the prisons. The cost at £35,000 per year per prisoners should be prohibitive in itself. Prison is also clearly the wrong place for people with such mental health problems to be housed. Beyond the prisons, many service personnel finish up as alcoholics and living homeless on the streets. The MOD estimate that 6 in 10 people returning from the front line could finish up with alcohol problems. These are incredible costs for individuals to be paying and society as a whole. They are certainly not the images brought forward in the shiny ads for a life of adventure in the armed forces.It is high time that a proper study was conducted of the true costs of war in all its ugly forms, and then just maybe those who send other people’s sons and daughters to fight on behalf of the country might just think twice about what they are doing. These latest revelations showing a prison population dominated by ex-squaddies, who have in many cases taken out their own mental health issues on partners and totally innocent members of the public, makes the case for withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan even stronger. The amount of crime being committed by ex-service personnel certainly bears out the view that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So for every Irish, Afghani or Iraqi person abused or killed by a British squaddie there could ultimately be a reaction on people living and working in the UK. These are sobering thoughts that underline the need to take these latest revelations from the probation service seriously and act accordingly. Failure to do so will simply result in the time bomb continuing to grow, claiming ever more victims along the way.