This is a talk I gave at a wonderful Carol Service in Hereford Cathedral organised by ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity a week ago.
Good evening and thank you very much to ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity for inviting me to speak to you on a subject which is very dear to my heart.
I joined the British Army at the age of 15, serving throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Throughout that time, I felt like I was wrapped in a cocoon. The army protected you from much of the outside world in those days, although not of course from the conflicts in which we took part. Mainland Britain had been at peace since the Second World War but a series of conflicts around the world had ensured that British soldiers continued on the frontline throughout that period. Korea, Malaya, Dhofar where I myself served, and of course Northern Ireland. But alongside that protective cocoon provided by the Army itself, I remember just one other piece of reassurance that if something happened, you and your family would be looked after. I remember it very clearly even to this day.
I was a Daily Telegraph reader and every morning at the bottom of the back page, an advert would appear for The Army Benevolent Fund. The advert was always the same. A silhouette of one solitary soldier, walking up a street, holding his rifle upright in the high port position. The slogan said simply: “Let Him Know He’s Not Alone”. The advert went on to say that “Every day and night our soldiers are guarding our security. Please help us to help them and their families when the need arises.”
Thankfully, I never needed that help, but after I became a defence correspondent, first for the Daily Telegraph and then for the Sunday Times, I met plenty who did. The wars had continued of course, in the Balkans, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. That cocoon I was talking about earlier, had become threadbare. Hundreds of soldiers had died ‒ more than 400 in Afghanistan alone ‒ or had been wounded so severely that they had lost the ability to live their lives normally. But the MoD seemed determined to stop them receiving the help they needed to rebuild their lives, leaving it to charities like the Army Benevolent Fund, now known as ABF, the Soldiers’ Charity, the reason we’re here, to provide the necessary funding.
I wrote about an awful lot of these guys and their struggle to get the help they needed, but two of them in particular stand out for me.
One was Martyn Compton, a member of the Household Cavalry, who was in his early twenties when the Spartan armoured reconnaissance vehicle he was driving was blown apart by a Taliban bomb, killing everyone else inside. Taliban rocket-propelled grenades set the Spartan on fire. Martyn fell out in flames and crawled away, rolling in the dust to put out the flames. He suffered 70 per cent burns to a third of his body, including his entire face, and had to be resuscitated three times on the flight back to Britain.
He was in an induced coma for three months and underwent 500 hours of surgery. Long before the MoD offered him the derisory sums that led one of his former officers to bring his case to my attention, ABF was already raising funds to help Martyn rebuild his life. You can read about him on their website. He and the young woman he was engaged to while he was in Afghanistan are now married and have two young children, Archie and Coral. And Martyn is now a racing driver. The determination that got him out of that burning vehicle ensured he got his life back, but at the beginning he had a lot of help from ABF.
The other serviceman whose story had a particular impact on me was in fact a Royal Marine.
Lance-Corporal Kevin Miller, also in his early twenties, took part in one of the most traumatic incidents of the war in Afghanistan, when Royal Marines trying to take a Taliban fort were forced by heavy enemy fire to pull out, only to discover once back at base that one of their men was missing.
In an outstanding act of heroism, four of the marines volunteered to go back to rescue him strapped to the side of Apache attack helicopters, only to discover that the missing marine had been shot dead after being caught in the crossfire of his own troops.
That deeply dispiriting incident affected all of those involved. Kevin was sent to a remote outpost where he and his fellow marines took shifts staring out into the empty, rocky desert constantly looking for any sign of movement, any sign of the Taliban. He lost four of his closest friends on that tour and when he returned home, he simply could not cope.
The first signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, came when he found himself drinking to excess.
“Then I realized I was having real anger problems,” he told me. “I was struggling to adjust.”
One of his biggest problems was anxiety brought on by the stark contrast between the desert base and the UK.
“I’d come back from what was a ghost town where all you do is fight and you notice the slightest thing that’s changed. Back here I was walking down a busy street with hundreds of people rushing past.”
He struggled to sleep. “I used to run through the whole operation at Jugroom Fort every night before I went to sleep. Then if I did get to sleep I’d wake up soaking wet.”
He was also sleep-walking. “I was wandering around the house thinking I was on patrol, sitting on the end of the bed saying, ‘Where’s me weapon? I can’t find my weapon’.”
Kevin was helped through his depression by Combat Stress, one of the charities ABF works with to help soldiers recover from the damaging effects of PTSD.
I’d like to be able to give you a feelgood ending to Kevin’s story, but I can’t. Sadly, Combat Stress has lost contact with Kevin. He moved and didn’t tell them where he was going.
Hopefully that is simply because he’s now fine, living a normal life, rather than having joined the large number of British war veterans suffering from PTSD who will be spending Christmas living homeless on our streets.
All of these people ‒ all of our former veterans who need help of any kind ‒ need to know that their sacrifice will not be forgotten.
We need to let them know ‒ just as the Army Benevolent Fund did in those old Telegraph adverts ‒ we need to let them know that they are not alone.