Combat Stress: A Living History

July 18, 2010 8:41 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

After speaking to several Veterans on Armed Forces Day, a friend and I decided to visit the Imperial War Museum, where we were fascinated by one particular display, that related to soldiers and the physical disabilities which have occurred during Britain’s wars, where among the items on exhibit were a series of photographs which illustrated men with missing limbs and other physical disabilities, along with a metallic leg which was worn by a WWII veteran, until his death in 1989.

Whilst looking over the items, it was striking that absent from this particular section of the permanent exhibition, was material relating to the psychological wounds of war upon British soldiers and the efforts that are still being made to support those Veterans who have been effected with conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In 2009, Combat Stress marked its 90th birthday and since its inception in 1919 has provided assistance to 100,000 British Veterans, whose mental health has been effected as a result of their services career.

Founded in the wake of the WWI, to support those Veterans with “Shell Shock” as it was known then, Combat Stress is still playing a pivotal role in helping thousands of Veterans, whose emotional well being has been damaged as a result of the many conflicts, that Britain has been involved with since that time.

At the end of the WWI thousands of men returning from the front line and from sea suffering from shell-shock. Many were confined in War Hospitals under Martial Law – with the risk of being sent on, without appeal, to asylums but the founding mothers of Combat Stress, who were mostly women, believed that these men could be helped to cope with their condition through rehabilitation.

PTSD has now become a topic, thankfully spoken on many peoples lips, as a result of the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but previous to this recent growing awareness in Britain, “shell shock” was again being spoken about in the literary world, by multi-award winning authors such as Pat Barker , who brought back to life the experiences of soldiers such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Barker has also described how war has impacted upon the mental health of the elderly, like her book Another World so graphically describes, with Geordie the 101-year-old Veteran and his re-occurring flashbacks to the trenches of France. A conversation I had last year was reminiscent of this book, when speaking to a woman in Manchester, who described how her father in old age had developed dementia and the last year of his life, had reverted back to being a prisoner of war in a Japanese concentration camp.

An unlikely “casualty of war”, one might argue but consider these facts; more Veterans from the Falklands have died from suicide than actually died in combat in the Falklands.

Across the UK, up to a third of all homeless people are former soldiers, sailors and airmen and as many as 8,000 veterans are in jail, which is nearly 10 per cent of the prison population. On average, it takes a Veteran approximately fourteen years after leaving the services, to make contact with Combat Stress.

Upon leaving the museum, I got speaking to a guide who was encouraging me to purchase an old style fighter pilots jacket and after accepting my refusal, I agreed to swap him a wristband for the charity Combat Stress.

It was then he explained his service in the Merchant Navy, whilst informing me that another relative was having mental health problems as a result of military service during the 1970s and having told him to make contact with the organisation for assistance, the realisation struck, that the history of Combat Stress is not just a story that is exclusive to the military, neither can it be confined to any display cabinet in a museum but it’s a living, breathing, talking history, that will permanently represent every mother, father, son and daughter.


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This post was written by Hussein Al-alak

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