Veterans, PTSD and the Justice System

by Veteran Knowsley

Veterans and the Justice System

The inquiry made by the Howard League for Penal Reform into former Armed Service personnel in prison was launched on Armistice Day 2009. The inquiry was established with the remit of discovering why so many ex-servicemen become involved with the criminal justice system and in particular, the problems which they face on leaving the Armed Forces, the sorts of offences which they have committed, the reasons which underscore their offending, how the needs of this group can best be met both in the community and in prison, and what can be done to reduce the number who commit offences resulting in custody.

The words above come from the Introduction of The Report of the Inquiry into Former Armed Service Personnel in Prison. Some people will wonder how a man or woman with a service background can turn to crime. I will try to answer that question.The study estimated that 77 per cent of ex-servicemen in prison served in the Army, 15 percent in the Royal Navy and 8 per cent in the Royal Air Force. Furthermore, it estimated that 51 per cent of ex-servicemen in prison are over the age of 45 years and 29 per cent are over the age of 55, which compares to 9 per cent of the general prison population being aged 50years or over. These statistics suggest that many ex-servicemen in prison have offended a considerable time after their date of discharge.So you can see it is not discharge in May in Jail by July.

The fact that there are large numbers of military veterans in our prisons is not in dispute. It seems the exact number however is subject for fierce debate. The National Probation Officers Association NAPO report on one hand that as many as 8,500 veterans are in prison, while the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice put the figure at closer to 3,000 - wherever the true figure may lie, and it is probably somewhere in the middle, the fact still remains that ex armed forces veterans in prison represent the largest occupational group amongst offenders. The problem is how many say they are veterans.

According to figures published in September 2009 by the National Association of Probation Officers armed forces veterans now account for up to ten per cent of the prison population, as many as 8,500 former soldiers, sailors and airmen and women they claim are now in jail - in addition to this NAPO also report that as many as 12,500 other veterans are on parole or subject to probation supervision - meaning that in excess of 20,000 veterans are now under correctional services control. NAPO state that their offences are dominated by drug and alcohol misuse, they have a propensity to violence, particularly domestic violence, and many suffer from depression and other mental health disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

So you can see drug and alcohol misuse, violence and mental health. A service man is trained to fight for his country. He is taught how to fire a rifle use a bayonet and how to defend himself or take out an enemy without a weapon. They train that person how to control his moody’s when to use and when not to. When he is discharge he is still that fighting machine. You are train to be a soldier but not to be a civilian. I spent 2 weeks after 23 years on a resettlement course. If you service less than 4 years then the is no help.

The mental health of veterans of the armed forces and its link to offending has been a subject of considerable concern in recent years. Those words came from General the Lord Ramsbotham GCB CBE from his report Across The Wire Veterans, Mental Health and Vulnerability. It also goes on to add Understanding the background of recruits is an important factor when considering how military life may affect later life compared with similar groups of young people who did not join the armed forces. It is important to understand the backgrounds of military recruits. Some of the more negative media stories about mental health problems, imprisonment, alcohol abuse and homelessness among veterans do not take this broader picture into consideration. And it is undoubtedly the case that joining the armed forces is a positive experience for many young people who would otherwise have followed a very different path altogether.

It is not only in the UK we have a problem in America t 140,000 veterans in jail. So where does it go wrong. The Times report  in April 2010 about a veteran who was he was “a cracking soldier, super-fit, bags of potential, and very mature yet 9 months later was standing in front of a Judge for grievous bodily harm with intent and affray. He committed a violent assault outside a pub in on December 31, 2003, at a New Year’s Eve party that had gone haywire. His victim suffered a fractured skull and permanently impaired vision as a result of the attack. He has since returned to the streets where he grew up. He is unemployed, psychiatrically unstable and bitter. He drinks vodka.             

The tour of Iraq was, he says, the only time in his life when he felt a true sense of purpose. But when he closes his eyes he can still picture dead Iraqis. He can still smell the cordite from expended rounds. He is prone to fits of guilt and depression that started in prison, when he was locked up with nothing to do but “go over and over in my head about the war”, and which continue to this day. Four years ago, after a series of violent incidents and flashbacks, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by a doctor who visited him in prison. Sometimes his rage becomes so intense that he shuts himself in his house and refuses to see anyone for days. Meanwhile, he struggles to maintain relationships, including his relation-ship with the mother of his six-year-old son.

Another soldier He is 37, from Wallasey, Merseyside, with a bald head and a tattooed torso and an easy manner that can harden in an instant. He was sent to prison in 2006 for possession of an illegal firearm. His offence was the direct result of powerful, trauma-related delusions, triggered by his experiences in Iraq. He remembers a feeling of total powerlessness as his base in Iraq was hit by  rocket’s fired by insurgents, and all he could do was sit in his body armour and helmet and wait. “We were just sitting around, waiting to get f***ing murdered,” he remembers. “That’s what done me in. It was not being able to do nothing. The first rocket I saw was when I was coming out of the shower. I saw it flying at me, and when I see a Canada goose now that’s what I think of. I remember when a rocket took the doors off. You heard the ground shaking, and you were waiting for it to hit.” His problems started when he return to Germany, he became convinced that he was under threat of attack from insurgents. When he thought someone had infiltrated his garden at night, he went out and destroyed the patio furniture. He became paranoid and abusive towards his wife, who tried to get him help before leaving him. He kept a pistol that he had “found while unloading gear” in the house. He remained constantly on guard. Once, when he became severely depressed, he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger — only to duck his head at the last moment.  It was not long before, his gun was found and he was arrested. Just before his court martial, he spent time at a hospital, where he was diagnosed with PTSD, but his diagnosis does not appear to have affected his sentence. The judge gave him five years for possession of a weapon before sending him to prison. He then spent another 20 months in jail before being released.

So you can see by the two cases that does PTSD have a part to play. Does heavy drinking have a part to play? People must remember that soldiers are human they to have a point where they cannot take any more. I understand the point of looking into soldiers back ground when he has a mental health problem. The Army must do a check before he joins. A Police Officer wishing to join the Fire Arm unit has to have a psychological evaluation before he is even interview. Yet a person with hidden problems can join up then when things go wrong it is too late.

Mental illness is a root cause of both homelessness and involvement in the Criminal Justice system. It is probable that veterans are either over-represented or more likely to have mental problems in the two groups. The reason is because the vast majority of veterans ‘do not know or realise’ that they are suffering from this mental disorder because of the way it masks itself within the veterans themselves. Someone suffering PTSD will say anything. The police must love this ‘will say anything’ syndrome when questioning veterans taken into custody – seeing that first and foremost the police’s job is to consciously and dutifully question these veterans to make their crimes look like open and shut cases of criminal guilt for the courts to prosecute. Merseyside Police are starting to look how they can help veterans caught up in the system. New offends are asked are you a veteran. It may be only a small step but might add in the help to cut down veterans in jail.

The MoD say: "The number of veterans in prison is low compared to the total veteran population. The MoD works with voluntary and charitable sector organisations and other departments to raise awareness among the ex-service prison population of the help and support available to them and their families whilst they serve their sentence and as they prepare for release." Not all veterans are heroes they were doing their job. Yet when they march out the gate it seems that they are forgotten then when things go wrong all doors seem close to him when asking for help.

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