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Why so many ex-soldiers end up in prison

One in ten inmates is a former soldier.

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

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.”