I drove past the barracks yesterday morning before the news had officially broken to find it crawling with TV cameras and photographers. It could only mean bad news. When I got to the garage to pick up my car, an older lady in reception was in tears. The news had just broken. Her husband was an ex-soldier and she said it just took her back to the time when he was serving in Northern Ireland. I felt desperately, desperately sad.
It was only a few weeks ago that I was in town when Corunna Company from the 3 Yorks paraded through to say goodbye before they deployed. It saddens me enormously to think that five of those men that the town cheered and waved will never return to England. I wonder if it's any coincidence that the flame lit by the youngest member of Corunna Company, which will burn until they all return from deployment, blew out yesterday.
Before I moved here the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were just news items. They didn't really affect me. Up to that point my previous experience of the military was largely in Bahrain, during peacetime. Apart from a brief relationship with a American bomb disposal export - a man who put the psycho in psychopath - we spent a lot of time being wined and dined by the US Sixth Fleet which was based there. I narrowly missed becoming the wife of a Navy dentist. It was a happy and reasonably relaxed time for the military.
Now, my children are at a school where 20% or more of the children are from army families. Their friends have parents in the army, we pass soldiers on the street every day, we stand next to them in the supermarket queues, on Bonfire Night we go to the fantastic firework display they organise in aid of military charities. It's not unusual for a Warrior to pull up at the traffic lights next to you. They are very much part of the life of the town as well as part of our own life.
The British military has been on a war footing since 2001, over 11 years. The Second World War lasted 6 years. We can only imagine the impossible strain that this is putting on the soldiers, sailors and airmen themselves as well as their families. My own experience, limited though it is, is that the reality is less Military Wives Choir and keeping the home fires burning, and more a mess of broken lives and wrecked marriages. This is nothing new. The psychological damage done to the forces during and after the Vietnam war is well documented.
The husband of a friend who is a serving RAF pilot, commented to me yesterday "Even more sad than that (the death of the soldiers) is that the suicide rate of ex-armed forces members is over 3 times that of civilians. There is a huge problem brewing in the next 10 years..... Let us not forget that more ex-Falklands conflict soldiers committed suicide post the war than died during it!"
The MoD, having failed to protect so many of the soldiers in the battlefield, continues to fail to protect them off it. What psychological help is available is largely chemical and aims to treat the symptoms not the causes. There seems to be an underlying feeling that any request for help is a sign of weakness and the idea of a holistic approach to the welfare of the military is not even a consideration. My friend's husband told me "I would happily do yoga if the MoD paid for it. The problem is that the Psych care provided by the MoD is scientific based care only - they do not believe in holistic therapy or alternative therapy and therefore will not fund it. Shame. Shame on them."
Drug abuse, mental health issues, homelessness are all areas where the ex-armed forces are over-represented, a situation that can only get worse the longer the military are entrenched in Afghanistan in a war that few of us understand. It's gone on for so long now it's just there. But for the men and women who served it will be 'there' for a long time yet. Maybe years, maybe the rest of their lives.
We are waiting anxiously for news of the fathers of two of their friends who are in Corunna Company. We are hoping for good news of course but their good news means bad news for another family. I saw The Girl's best friend's father yesterday, a welfare officer for the Yorks. He was drained and exhausted. He knows who the families are but military lips are sealed until an official announcement has been made. Even Facebook is silent.
A shame, therefore, that some of the journalists were stopping the school buses yesterday morning to try and prise information out of the school children and hanging around the school gates. It was the first that most of them had heard of the tragedy.
For five local families and a sixth up in Catterick where the Lancasters are based today will be their first day without a son, father, husband or brother. There lives will never be the same again. For the men of Burma Company, 3 Yorks, who deploy to Afghanistan in a few weeks, the reality of war has been brought starkly home. For the other men and women of the armed forces, life will continue but if they don't get the support they need to deal with combat stress, the effects will be felt for decades to come unless more is done to help them.
|The soldiers of Corunna Company, 3rd Battalion, The Yorkshire|
Regiment, on their farewell march through Warminster