New report highlights war trauma among young soldiers

By agency reporter
October 28, 2013

Young soldiers recruited from disadvantaged backgrounds are substantially more likely than other troops to return from war experiencing problems with their mental health, says a wide-ranging report published today (28 October 2013) by human rights group ForcesWatch.

The report, ‘The Last Ambush? Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces’ , draws on over 150 sources, including 41 British military mental health studies, as well as testimony from veterans. It shows that, compared with older personnel, younger recruits are significantly more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to drink at levels harmful to health, and to behave violently on their return from war. Young recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds are at greatest risk.

Citing studies of large, representative samples of the armed forces, the report finds that:

* Eight per cent of Iraq War veterans who enlisted without GCSEs or Scottish Standards met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their deployment, compared with four per cent in the armed forces as a whole and three per cent in the general population. Personnel without GCSEs typically enlist at younger ages.

* Twenty-six per cent of personnel aged 18-24 were found to be drinking at levels harmful to health, which is twice the 13 per cent average for the armed forces and more than three times the eight per cent rate found among civilians of similar age.

* Twenty-four per cent of Iraq War veterans in the lowest ranks, who are typically the youngest, reported behaving violently in the weeks following their homecoming; the average rate across the armed forces was 13 per cent . The rate of violent offending among Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans after their deployment was twice what is was before they enlisted.

Over the past 20 years, the suicide rate has been 82 per cent higher among male soldiers under 20 than among civilian men of the same age.

The suicide rate among former armed forces personnel aged under 20 has been nearly three times as high as that in the same age group in the general population (between 1996 and 2005).

Given that there remains a stigma in the armed forces attached to reporting mental health issues and most studies do not assess personnel fully anonymously, the true prevalence of mental health problems is likely to be higher than these figures suggest, says ForcesWatch.

As a group, younger personnel from adverse childhood backgrounds are both more vulnerable to war stress and over-represented in front-line Infantry roles where exposure to traumatic experiences is greatest, the report explains. Recruits who enlist at age 16 or 17 are channelled in disproportionate numbers into the Infantry, becoming deployable to war as soon as they turn 18.

Although it accounts for just 14 per cent of the armed forces, in the last five years the Infantry received 32 per cent of all new recruits aged under 18 (compared with 24 per cent of adult recruits).

The Infantry has suffered a fatality rate in Afghanistan some seven times that seen in the rest of the armed forces, says the report, and those who enlisted into the Army at 16 have been at greatest risk.

In contrast, personnel who enlist as adults and hold stronger qualifications join a wider range of roles; they are therefore, in general, less exposed to traumatic stress in warfare.

The report calls for the policy of recruiting from age 16 to be reviewed so that the greatest burden of risk is not left to the youngest, most vulnerable recruits to shoulder. Raising the minimum age of recruitment to 18 would ensure that recruits share the risks more equally and that they assume them at the age of adult responsibility .

The report also notes that the UK is the only state in the European Union to recruit from age 16 and one of only 19 worldwide; most state armed forces now recruit only adults.

David Gee, the new report’s author, commented: "When it comes to the trauma of warfare, recruits from the poorest backgrounds face a 'perfect storm' of pre-existing vulnerability and greater battlefield exposure. Recruiting 16 year olds into the Infantry puts the most vulnerable group in roles most exposed to trauma when they turn 18 and are sent to war."

The report discusses why some veterans are more psychologically affected than others. It shows that a combination of recruits’ pre-enlistment situation, military factors such as rank and exposure to combat, and the support available to veterans when leaving the forces, all affect mental health in the long-term.

Although younger recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely than others to experience mental health problems regardless of their war experience, traumatisation in warfare is the main explanatory factor for their greater psychological burden, as a number of British and US studies have shown.

* ForcesWatch, which is backed by Ekklesia and others, scrutinises armed forces recruitment practices and proposes changes in policy aimed at better serving the interests of young people. http://www.forceswatch.net

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