February 3, 2008 – It was, he admits, quite a shock. The sniper’s bullet ripped through his left cheek, gouging through both eye sockets before exiting below his right ear. Corporal Simon Brown remembers lying in a Basra backstreet trying to rearrange his face.
‘It had collapsed, the skin from my face was flopping down, blocking my airways. I could barely breathe,’ he says. Under relentless fire from insurgents, Brown wrapped a bandage around his broken features.
Three weeks later, the 29-year-old woke up in Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. Today he lives alone in his grandmother’s old house in the West Yorkshire town of Morley. His health may never recover, his military career is over. Brown has yet to receive compensation for his injuries. But now it is time to move on. After 11 years in the military, he is about to begin the daunting journey back to civvy street.
‘The army made me who I am. It is difficult to leave because of so many friends, some of whom have been lost.’ Yet his injuries – sustained trying to rescue colleagues from a crippled armoured vehicle during intense fighting in December 2006 – leave him little choice. He plans to start a teaching course and considers himself fortunate; he has ambition.
But what of the rest who glimpsed the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan and then left? Some, unable to adjust from the rigid hierarchy of the military to the vagaries of civilian life, have killed themselves. Others are unable to rationalise being abandoned by the authorities and turn to alcohol and drugs. Some are on the streets, quite literally.
Last year, the Royal British Legion took 1,485 calls from homeless ex-service personnel desperate for help. By law, former forces personnel should be offered accommodation as a priority, yet councils fail to honour their obligations, largely because of long waiting lists. Others are denied a chance to own a home because the heightened risk of suicide among those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan means they can’t get life insurance to guarantee a mortgage.
The stories of Brown, Hayley Murdoch, Dave Hart and Andy Julien, told here for the first time, lend weight to the consensus that the military covenant – the guarantee of a duty of care between the government and the armed forces – has faltered. Collectively, they present a tale of broken marriages, thwarted careers, psychological breakdown and isolation. Next month marks the fifth anniversary of the opening salvos of an Iraqi conflict steeped in controversy and confusion. Now it is the war in Afghanistan that is muddied in a quagmire of uncertainty. The intractability of fighting in Helmand province promises British casualties for years to come.
The price paid by the British men and women who entered these baking battlefields can only in part be measured in statistics. At the time of writing, 261 British service personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 4,000 have been injured and 52 have lost limbs, half of them in the past 18 months. Tellingly, in a society submerged in statistics the incidence of broken marriages, suicides, alcoholism, deep depression and homelessness among service veterans remains largely unquantified.
A year has passed since a veteran accosted Tony Blair and told the then Prime Minister how he found himself homeless and forced to pay for medical care after two years in Iraq. Little appears to have changed. What the British nation owes those prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice remains a matter of fierce debate. Perhaps the most pressing question of all might well be: do we really care?
Only they know what it took to turn their lives around. Cavalryman Andy Julien had hit rock bottom. Severely wounded in a friendly fire incident during the invasion of Iraq, Julien was ‘downgraded’ and discharged from the army in 2004. He was never offered another military position, another chance to salvage his career. Four days after the world watched Baghdad shudder in March 2003 under George Bush’s promise to unleash a military might never before seen on the face of the planet, the 27-year-old was ordered to bring his Challenger II tank back from the front line when he was struck. The fact that he may never fully recover from his leg injuries and the lack of government support pushed him to the edge. ‘I had so much anger, it was very different being back on civvy street. No one understood.’ Two of his friends were killed in the incident but an inquest found nobody to blame. The public’s apathy for a largely unpopular war exacerbated his despair.
Hayley Murdoch can sympathise. Her back and hip were severely damaged after an accident in Iraq in 2005. Discharged from the RAF with no support, the 27-year-old recalls collapsing in the street after her legs gave way. ‘People were stepping over me because they thought I was drunk,’ she said.
Psychologists refer to a cycle of despair that characterises the struggle of many who leave the military. Employment proves elusive. Pressures build. Eventually they try to escape through drink and drugs. Often they leave home, some heading to London for a fresh start where they find themselves in limbo with nothing to their name. There are no flags, no bands, no glorious memories.
‘The army’s a bit like heroin – weaning yourself off can take time,’ said Michael, a paratrooper who has left the forces after a 22-year stint. ‘All of a sudden it’s “see you later”. That’s it. You get your £40,000 final resettlement package, but that soon goes on a new kitchen, patio, what have you. The army is an employer, then you’re on your own. If you don’t prepare, you’re in trouble.’
No help is given with finding a job, according to Michael. He found a different culture on civvy street, a more competitive environment with conflicting attitudes. The 41-year-old, who trained as a plumber in Manchester, said: ‘You are putting up radiators in a house and one’s not straight. The civvy attitude is it doesn’t matter, but it’s somebody’s home, for God’s sake.’
Murdoch believes the military is willing to abandon its own. ‘After the Second World War people with serious injuries were re-employed. Now they just discard them. If you cannot recover, it’s a case of “off you go, then”.’
Those who survived the Second World War benefited from a shared solidarity; an entire generation could empathise with their sacrifice. Now, away from the camaraderie of the barracks, the sense of alienation can be acute. Some face hostility upon their return to civilian life. Brown is flabbergasted that people blame soldiers for the politics that led to the two conflicts. ‘If it was up to us, we would invade the Caribbean,’ he says.
Both Murdoch and Julien were discharged when the extent of their injuries meant they could no longer do the jobs for which they were trained. ‘Everything is hunky-dory and then you feel like a liability,’ said Murdoch. Some fight to stay in. Lance-Corporal Craig Lundberg, 22, was blinded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq during 2006 and, although he appreciates there is slim demand for a blind sniper, appreciates the role of the army’s support network.
Still, no one knows how many of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequently left the armed forces have committed suicide. Details of their service career are not entered on death certificates. Neither does anyone know how many of the 10,000 reservists – proven to be more susceptible to mental-health problems than regulars – who have served in the conflicts have killed themselves. Researchers at Manchester University are currently trawling through death registers for the past five years. Their findings, to be published this spring, are expected to be shocking.
Frances Hoy, a spokeswoman for the Royal British Legion, said: ‘We get calls from anxious parents explaining that their children are on the edge. They go to see their GP who only prescribes anti-depressants.’
This week the Ministry of Defence will trumpet increases to its compensation scheme for the most seriously injured victims of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who have inspected the small-print are underwhelmed. Just 20 cases involving the thousands injured in Iraq and Afghanistan will receive higher payouts. Even then, the benefits can be meagre. One of the 20 requires lifelong care but can expect no more than an extra £12,000. ‘The changes go nowhere near far enough,’ said Hoy.
Julien has never received a penny in compensation. Murdoch is considering taking the MoD to court to secure a settlement. Brown still waits. Dave Hart, 31, who was one of the army’s first suicide car bomb victims in Afghanistan, had his application for compensation refused. The multiple injuries he sustained explain his exasperation at the government’s refusal to help.
‘There was massive blood loss, a fractured skull, blood on the brain, a perforated eardrum, shrapnel cuts all over. Battery acid was sprayed all over my body and caught fire. My left lung collapsed and my right lung filled with blood. My left arm was almost amputated and my hands were shattered. I could go on …’
Another two years of operations are scheduled and he will need lifelong care. Soldiers are encouraged to take out personal accident insurance. Such cover has cost Michael more than £2,500 over the past decade. ‘If you are a private soldier with two kids, earning £1,200 a month, then that’s a lot,’ he says. Julien’s cover fell short of the amount required for his treatment. ‘There’s all these clauses and they always try to get out of paying. I would give it all back to be how I was before the war,’ he said.
Evidence given to the yet unpublished parliamentary report into provision of medical welfare for soldiers portrays a climate of cost-cutting. Britain is the only major European country without a dedicated military hospital. By contrast, French troops have the best medical institutions at their disposal. They include the Hôpital d’instruction des Armées Val-de-Grâce in Paris, offering a service so outstanding it has become the premier port of call for every ailing French leader since Charles de Gaulle. Hart appreciates the value of such investment. His survival was dependent on the treatment he received from French and German surgeons after being flown from Afghanistan to Germany for treatment. ‘The NHS has been OK, but the German welfare is why I am still here. They even wanted to carry on treating me.’ He found himself dumped on a geriatrics ward in a British hospital. He arrived on a Friday and was not seen by a doctor until the following Monday. He felt forgotten. He then caught the hospital superbug MRSA.
Rifleman Jamie Cooper, wounded in Iraq at the age of 18, twice contracted MRSA in hospital. Cooper, who has lost the use of his right hand and one leg, is eligible for £57,000 compensation. Friends last week described the teenager’s angst at hearing that actress Leslie Ash, 47, was to get £5m for contracting a hospital-acquired infection after injuring herself during a love-making session with her husband. Brown, though, remains typically indefatigable. Another 24 months of surgery will be required to rebuild his face. His left eye is blinded. He has just 15 per cent vision in his right. ‘I could sit around moping, but I am looking forward,’ he says. He is looking for a girl – ‘as long as she’s not a gold-digger – and enjoys a drink. But never too many.’ Nearly a quarter of those deployed in conflict for longer than 13 months have ‘severe’ drink issues. Eighteen British service personnel a week are testing positive for drug use involving cannabis, ecstasy or cocaine. Typically, the deepest scars affecting those returning to civvy street are in the mind. Combat Stress, which helps veterans with mental-health problems, has seen a 27 per cent rise in referrals. Yet more than half of those with psychological problems do not receive a war pension and cannot qualify for funding to help with their treatment. The average time-lag for post-traumatic stress to surface is 13 years; only in 2020 will we know the true fallout of the current operations. As a raw recruit Brown, then aged 20, was traumatised by Kosovo. ‘You didn’t ask for help, people think you’re soft. Instead you go for a bath or a quick drink.’
Brown, Murdoch, Hart and Julien will continue to forge new lives. None, though, will forget their time in the military; their bodies and minds will always carry the scars. For the armed forces themselves, the future is equally fraught. Pressures on a dwindling army fighting two conflicts exerts predictable effects. A parliamentary committee revealed last week that soldiers are leaving because of exhaustion. Every year, the army suffers a ‘voluntary outflow’ of 5,800 trained men. Officials say the funding crisis is the worst since the end of the Cold War. The MoD, meanwhile, is bringing in new resettlement packages to ease the transition into civilian life. For many, such changes have come too late.