Aunday August 31, 2008
More than 8,000 veterans are currently behind bars, many of whom have served their country in Iraq or Afghanistan, researchers found.
A high proportion of the convicts interviewed in the study had suffered some form of post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the forces. Often their convictions were for drug- or alcohol-related violence.
Ex-services charities said the findings highlighted the difficulty which many former soldiers face in making the transition to civilian life.
The National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), which carried out the research, called on the Government to do more to tackle mental health problems suffered by people who have fought in war zones.
It said that around 24,000 veterans are either in jail, on parole or serving community punishment orders after having been convicted of crimes. They make up around nine per cent of the prison population.
Opposition MPs and charities called the findings another example of ministers breaking the ‘military covenant’ – the guarantee that soldiers receive fair treatment in return for putting their lives on the line.
They claimed that if the Ministry of Defence properly screened those discharged from the military for mental illnesses, problems could be identified earlier.
NAPO’s conclusions are based on the findings of three separate studies: MoD research at HMP Dartmoor, a survey at eight jails by the Veterans in Prison support groups last year, and a series of Home Office research projects between 2001 and 2004.
In addition, probation officers provided case histories of 74 individuals so that researchers could assess the factors that drove ex-services personnel to commit crimes.
The report concludes: "Most of the soldiers who had served in either the Gulf or Afghanistan were suffering from post traumatic stress. Little support or counselling was available on discharge from the forces.
"Virtually all became involved in heavy drinking or drug taking and in consequence involvement in violence offences, sometimes domestically related, happened routinely."
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of NAPO, called the findings a "real concern". He said: "The vast majority of the offending is drug or alcohol related violence. There is no systematic availability of stress related counselling.
"Had support services been available at the point of discharge and when personnel first came in touch with the criminal justice system, custody could have been avoided probably in the majority of cases."
The Royal British Legion said that while most people in the armed forces manage the transition into civilian life easily, "a select few get into a vortex that drags them downwards".
A spokesman said: "We believe more effort should be made to tackle the acceptance of heavy drinking that still occurs among sections of the Armed Forces, to identify causes for alcohol misuse, to help vulnerable personnel reduce their alcohol intake, and to investigate the long-term psychological health effects of alcohol over-use among service personnel."
A spokesman for SSAFA, the services charity, said: "The majority of people that leave the armed forces leave having had a life-changing experience.
"Some do find it difficult to adjust and feel isolated and lonely. In some cases people will descend into alcohol or substance abuse, lose their job and spiral into homelessness and eventually end up in jail. Military operations in recent years have placed the armed forces under increased pressures."
Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, said the Conservatives had concerns about the level of mental health care available for services personnel.
An MoD spokesman said: "Robust systems are in place to treat and prevent PTSD and other stress disorders. Counselling is available to service personnel at all times, and all troops receive pre- and post-deployment briefings to help recognise the signs of stress disorders."
The large number of ex-services personnel in prison runs counter to the argument that the reintroduction of national service could make Britain’s youth more law-abiding.
Last week the MoD announced that eighteen sailors face being thrown out of the Royal Navy after they tested positive for cocaine on a warship which has been used to combat drug smuggling.
Cases of ex-services personnel being jailed include that of an former soldier from the West Country who was imprisoned for three years for threatening a drug dealer with a firearm.
He suffered from PTSD after serving in Northern Ireland and the 2003 Gulf War, and told probation officers he felt the authorities "had washed their hands of him".
A former soldier from West Yorkshire, who served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and obtained the rank of acting-sergeant, was sentenced for a drug offence. He told probation officers he missed the camaraderie of the army, started using and selling drugs, then found it difficult to hold down a day job. He was diagnosed with PTSD and became depressed, experiencing financial problems.
Lee Holt, 34, a former Army private, left the armed forces after a tour in Bosnia. He was jailed for a year for assault after he got into a fight with friends after drinking in a pub. He suffers from PTSD and paranoia, and still has panic attacks and nightmares.
"There was a real drinking culture in the army," he said. "That’s when I started to drink heavily. Everybody did it – it was the norm.
"It took me a long time to realise I was suffering from PTSD and now I look back at the way that I used to be violent in the past and I really regret it.
"I have a wife and kid now, and a steady job, so it’s difficult to understand just why I was doing it."