Why so many ex-soldiers end up in prison

One in ten inmates is a former soldier.

Robert looks a little older than his 40-odd years. His face reminds me a little of Sid James, and somewhat surprisingly, so does his laugh - a hearty chuckle that punctuates his speech. He smokes little roll-ups, incessantly. He takes a final toke on his latest, and stares at me.

Robert grew up in the wrong end of town, Deptford, and aged 22, he joined the army. “There was so much trouble where I lived. So I thought if I was going to die, it might as well be for something worthwhile, rather than stabbed to death on a street corner over some stupid bullshit.”

He won’t talk about his service in any detail. I know he served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the First Gulf War, and I ask him about it. “That’s not going to happen. I could tell you the details – friends dying and all the rest of it – but unless they’ve done it, people just don’t understand what it’s like.” His warm smile begins to fade. I don’t push him. Instead, I move on to the main point of the interview: what happened to him after he left the army.

“I met my ex-wife in the army. She got pregnant. They kicked her out, and I said fine, if you’re going to treat my missus like that, I’m going too. She got pregnant again a year later, and it was all going fine. I got into roofing – that’s my game. Then, all of a sudden, I started to get very violent with people. I thought it was just me, coming from south London, being an army boy and all that. It was horrible.”

What did it feel like? “It’s so hard to describe. I’d be sitting in the pub, just staring at everyone in there, thinking they’re threats. Even my children and my missus – they seemed like threats. I’m looking at people who are shit scared of me, and I’m constantly on the front foot, getting ready to attack them.

Then I stopped sleeping. The only way I could get to sleep was by drinking. You want to nullify yourself – you turn to drugs and drink. Even now I still wake up in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t see a doctor, because I’m a soldier and all the rest of it. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not going to admit that to myself, am I?”

This weekend, the Independent on Sunday revealed that the number of ex-military men in prison may be up to three times larger than the number described by the Government. One in ten prisoners is a former soldier. Robert has been one of those men. Over the last twenty years he has been in prison four times, on each occasion for acts of violence. Once he was in there, he felt better. “I’m in the institution again, you know what I mean? Most of the people weren’t scary or anything – I’m no Charlie Big Potatoes, but it’s full of a bunch of mugs. I met a few other army boys while I was in there, and they said exactly the same thing.”

“There’s nothing lined up in prison for ex-servicemen. No help in there at all. But every army boy I met in there was like me – in for violence. They were crying out for direction, and glad to be back in an institution. They don’t care what they get up to outside, because they’ve got nothing to lose – prison appeals to them, because you get three meals a day and a roof over your head. It’s absolutely nothing to them. They’ve seen scarier people than anything prison’s got to offer. And these are really trained people, people who could take you out from 800 metres with the right gun.”

Did he get any help at all? “The only help I got in there was from some of the screws, who were ex-army. It was one of them who put me in touch with the British Legion.” The Legion, in turn, put him in touch with a charity – Robert doesn’t want to name them – which put him in a hostel for ex-servicemen. “It’s terrible. They whack them up with all sorts of medication. Turn them into zombies. There were all sorts in there – even an ex-British soldier who’d become a terrorist in Ireland. It didn’t seem to matter, because they were shells of men.

“The British Legion sent a marine from Combat Stress [a charity for ex-servicemen suffering from PTSD], but I didn’t really like what they were offering. It just didn’t appeal to me. It seemed a bit flaky. Then they put me in touch with PTSD Resolution, and that was when my life began to turn around.”

Tony Gauvain is a retired Colonel who heads up PTSD Resolution, a charity based in Surrey. From small beginnings, he now receives two referrals a week. I ask him, first of all, about the PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – from which his charity takes his name.

“It’s a label, and it’s tightly defined by DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the psychiatrists’ Bible). Some epidemiologists will tell you that it’s not a problem – that only a tiny number of ex-armymen are suffering from it. This is either deceptive, a conspiracy or a cock-up,” he replies.

Why are the figures so low? “Because very few have an assessment in the first place, and those that do don’t tick all the boxes. Statistically it’s not a problem – but depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol addiction are. You have to ask why. It’s because those soldiers are trying to deal with pain; it doesn’t match the symptoms of PTSD as laid out in the manuals. The establishment is locked into the conventional view of it as defined by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.” Gauvain’s charity treats soldiers using totally different methods to those preferred by the NHS. It uses what’s known as the “Rewind” treatment, or trauma-focussed cognitive behaviour therapy.

“It’s not new,” says Gauvain. “It emerged from the work of Milton Erickson and Richard Bandler (two American therapists who came to prominence a generation ago). It’s predicated on the amygdala, the part of the reptilian brain within which an event is caught as an emotional memory and held in a neurological pattern. It’s this that means a patient, say, hears a car backfire, which resonates with the time an improvised explosive device went off, and makes them instantly flip into an aggressive mood.

“The important thing about the amygdala, unlike the rational brain, is that it has no sense of time. The rational brain can’t hang on to the emotions that go with memories, but the amygdala can’t let go. The way we treat our patients is to hypnotise them and allow them to run the memory forwards and backwards in a relaxed state. It teaches the amygdala to let go – that it doesn’t need to hang on to that pattern any more.”

“The best thing about the treatment,” says Robert, “Is that it’s non-intrusive. One of the therapists I had before I went to the charity was asking me all sorts of personal questions about how many people I’d killed or seen die – I couldn’t bear to go through it. But with this treatment, it was all done through the imagination. It’s not plain sailing – I still have trouble sleeping every now and again – but I began to feel myself improved after three weeks or so.”

Earlier this month the charity No Offence CIC, which works to improve the criminal justice system, held a conference at Doncaster Prison to discuss ways of keeping former military people out of jail.  One of those on the charity's working group was Trevor Philpott, a retired Lieutenant Colonel with the Royal Marines and a member of the charity’s working group. He claims the number of veterans entering the Justice system is growing: “The Government keeps quoting 3-4%, this being based upon a report back in 2009 when they attempted to join records from the MOD and MOJ together. More recent reports from numerous prisons around the country suggest in excess of 6.8% (6,000) with some indicating up to 14%.”

He says that Robert’s case is far from uncommon: “The majority - but by no means all - of the veteran offenders are often from Line Infantry Regiments. Many joined in their late teens from environments that they saw as lacking stability and opportunities. As a consequence, on joining they lacked the wider life skills necessary to live productive lives in civy street. They lack life and employment skills, might have family stresses, and they begin to feel inadequate – this on top of losing the comradeship they felt in the army. On top of that, they’ll be retaining trauma that might not manifest itself until years down the line.” 

But what are the answers? Above all, he says understanding mental health is key: ”It’s about identifying dysfunctional behaviours, handling them sensitively and providing effective help. With the exception of a few former military personnel now working in the justice and court systems, the level of knowledge and understanding about such issues is poor. Veteran offenders and their families constantly say that people don’t understand what they have been through and that people do not listen to them.”  

It seems odd that so little precedent is given to those suffering mental damage in comparison with those who’ve lost limbs. Philpott says: “I believe that under the Military Covenant, alternatives to prison should be established allowing individuals to be helped in addressing their problems and supporting them and their families. For those that do enter the justice system, there should be a system that enables prisoners to access co-ordinated support upon release, including access to further treatment.”

Philpott says that this problem isn’t going away, and may only get worse: “Over the last 30 years UK forces have been involved in increasing levels of combat operations - Falklands, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq 1 & 2, Afghanistan, West Africa. Combat tempo has been high and often involved rapid turnaround between deployments. The potential for experiencing combat related trauma has increased significantly. The impact this has had on many personnel and their families has been profound, but only recently – in the last ten years – has it started to be recognised. More veterans who participated in the Falklands war have subsequently committed suicide than were killed during the operation.”

Robert says: “If I could say one thing to Philip Hammond, it’s this. The army spends so much time training us to be killers, but it doesn’t de-train us. We need three or four months; an extended resettlement process. Rightly, the army will spend a lot of money on people who’ve suffered physical injuries, but it feels like they aren’t willing to spend any money on mental injuries. It just feels like we’re storing up problems for further down the line.”


Soldiers from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards march at a homecoming parade in December 2011. Photograph: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.