The full impact of Afghanistan is yet to be seen
David Murray, Chief Executive of SSAFA, takes a moment to talk about the importance of the Afghanistan Service of Commemoration and the long-term effects of the conflict on the Forces family.
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Today's Afghanistan service of commemoration is an opportunity to recognise the courage and sacrifice of the tens of thousands of brave men and women who served in the conflict and to honour the 453 servicemen and women who lost their lives fighting for our country.
Stories from Afghanistan have dominated the media agenda for the last decade and images from today’s service at St Paul's Cathedral will once again feature on the front pages. However, looking ahead to the years to come, now that combat operations are over and interest is fading, it is imperative that we keep to the front of our minds the indelible mark that this war has left on our nation.
SSAFA is already helping a significant number of those who fought in Afghanistan, along with their families. As the only national military charity that has been there through two World Wars and every conflict since, experience tells us that the full impact of the Afghanistan campaign is yet to be seen.
The precise nature of the issues that those who served in Afghanistan are dealing with will take some time to unravel. SSAFA knows that the grieving process for the partners, parents, children and siblings of those who have died in Afghanistan will manifest at different stages and in many different ways. As an example, a mother who lost her son in Iraq 10 years ago only recently attended one of our bereaved family support groups for the first time, as she had only just felt ready to talk.
SSAFA is providing support and accommodation for many of those who suffered life altering injuries in Afghanistan. Whilst they undergo intensive rehabilitation programmes we are introducing them to specially adapted living environments and ensuring that their families are able to be alongside them literally every step of the way. However it is not unusual for physical rehabilitation programmes such as these to last for many years. With their planned career in the Forces coming to an abrupt end, they and their families are facing an uncertain future with significant struggles ahead, but for now many are only just learning to live with a disability.
And then there are those with the injuries that we cannot see. Those who serve in the Forces are by nature very resilient characters. However a recent report by the Defence Select Committee highlighted an increase in the number of military personnel being treated for mental health problems.
The current focus on PTSD amongst those who have served in Afghanistan is not without foundation, but we must not dismiss the impact of broader mental health issues. Milder forms of depression and anxiety are common and can be equally debilitating. More often than not SSAFA sees a mental health issue, triggered by active service, as a potent catalyst for a destructive domino effect. Whether it be panic attacks followed by a relationship breakdown, flashbacks leading to a substance abuse problem or recurring nightmares going hand in hand with long periods of unemployment and financial pressures, an extensive spectrum of mental health issues are becoming a common thread.
Simply reaching a diagnosis of a mental health illness for a veteran takes time. Our servicemen and women have been trained to be the fittest, taught to cope under immense pressure and rightly revered by their families and friends; having to ask for help in these instances often proves a real challenge, one which we see them grapple with time and time again.
As we attempt to slowly understand the full impact of the Afghanistan campaign and stay abreast of the huge changes afoot to the structure of our Armed Forces, SSAFA will continue to review and meet the changing needs of the military community. But we cannot do it alone. As a nation, the British have always been proud to support our Armed Forces and as Afghanistan makes the transfer from the front pages to the history books, let us not forget that our Forces have been there for us, doing their duty on our behalf, to keep us safe. They have had our backs, and now is the time for us to have theirs.