Number of ex-soldiers in UK jails on the rise; combat trauma blamed

August 31st, 2008 - 3:48 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Aug 31 (IANS) At nearly a tenth of the British prison population, ex-soldiers form the largest occupational group in the country’s penal system. Post-traumatic stress caused by military operations in recent years is said to be the main reason for around 8,500 ex-soldiers finding themselves behind bars for violent offences. The actual figure could be even more, experts believe.A majority of the offenders are those who had joined the army after leaving school and were unable to reconcile themselves to civilian life after leaving military service. Lack of education, job security and relationships are some of the harsh realities they face. Coupled with harsh memories of their field days, these factors can lead them to offend.

In a sign that the Ministry of Defence is increasingly aware of the problem, it recently carried out its own assessment in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice and ex-services charities. A pilot study at Dartmoor prison concluded that almost 17 per cent of inmates had been members of the armed forces.

“It is of real concern that thousands of soldiers are in prison and many more are on parole or community service orders,” said Harry Fletcher of Napo, the probation trade union. “In virtually every incidence the former soldier served in either the Gulf or Afghanistan, became involved in excess alcohol or drug-taking, and was subsequently convicted of an offence of violence.”

Often it is those closest to the soldiers who are victims of their violence. David Bradley, 43, developed post-traumatic stress after serving in Northern Ireland. In 2006, he shot his uncle, aunt and two cousins at close range with a pistol he had smuggled into the UK after serving in Bosnia. Several hours later, armed with a nail bomb, a sawn-off shotgun and a pistol with silencer and ammunition, Bradley walked into his local police station in Newcastle and calmly said: ‘I have killed four members of my family.’

“The number of soldiers in prison is definitely on the rise,” said Tracey Johnson of Veterans in Prison, which believes there is a link between the intensity of the army’s current missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the number of soldiers currently in jail. “They’re fighting in back-to-back conflicts, coming out and going back again; they haven’t got time to recover. There are not enough of them. They don’t have the right cover or equipment and they’re absolutely knackered.”

The organisation has been inundated with letters from soldiers in prison. In virtually every case it believes that the writers were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One father said that before his son was jailed for threatening to shoot another soldier, he had been wetting his bed and in floods of tears because “he couldn’t get Iraq out of his head”.

Despite heightened concerns about the prevalence of the stress condition, there are claims that little is being done to assess soldiers’ mental health when they return from war zones. What help is available is usually on an ad hoc basis and often available only when they have been incarcerated, according to The Observer.

However, there are also suspicions that some soldiers will cite combat fatigue as an excuse for their criminal behaviour. “There are those who say they have it as some sort of amelioration for their actions,” conceded Peter Poole, director of welfare services at the charity Combat Stress.

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