A national charity has called for a change in the law to settle a row at the heart of Government and make monitoring the rate of suicides among military veterans compulsory.
We spoke to the family of a Warsop Veteran who took his life at the age of 24, who say more needs to be done to help victims of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
An investigation by JPIMedia Investigations last summer - which prompted a national debate - revealed that the Government does not monitor how many former service personnel take their own lives, amid fears that the number of cases is spiralling.
Allied nations like the US, Australia and Canada all record the number of veteran suicides closely, having found significant increases in the past decade.
Campaigners say official UK figures are now also vital to help traumatised war heroes.
Since we highlighted the issue, Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood announced the Government would begin a study into suicide rates among veterans who previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also said in November that it was his ambition “to understand from every coroner whether an individual death is a veteran or not”.
However, JPIMedia Investigations can now reveal a row at the heart of Government over the issue, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) claiming it is not feasible for coroners to record veteran suicides.
MPs on the Defence Select Committee have also been keenly pursuing the issue of military mental health, publishing their first report last July. It recommended that the Ministry of Defence work with the justice departments across the four UK nations to work out from existing suicide records whether someone had been a veteran.
A second report by the committee, due to be published on Monday, is expected to further press the Government for progress.
Jeff Williams, a former Royal Marine Sergeant Major and campaigner with the Birmingham-based group Veterans Against Suicide, told JPI that he is “devastated” to hear that the MoJ has ruled out support from coroners.
He said: “I am not surprised but I am pretty devastated because a lot of people in the veterans community have hung their hats on this happening.
“We were under the impression that this was in the late stages of being implemented and it wasn’t going to be a problem.”
His group has recorded the suspected suicide of five veterans and four serving members of the forces so far this year, with 80 former and current service personnel believed to have taken their lives in 2018.
It should be straightforward for coroners to ask families if their loved ones were veterans, he said.
His organisation can verify “with one phone call” whether someone was a veteran or not.
“This is just a cop-out in my opinion,” he said.
Dr Walter Busuttil, Medical Director of national veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, said it is now up to to MPs to step in and make it a statutory responsibility on coroners to record veteran suicides.
“If they want to record things properly then they are going to have to change the law,” he said.
He said it sounded a viable idea for coroners’ IT systems to be linked to MoD pension records, to verify if someone was a veteran.
“There are precedents, it can be done,” he said.
However, the MoJ said it was too complex for coroners to record veteran suicides, in particular because of the potential difficulties of accurately establishing a victim’s occupational history.
“For this reason, there are no plans to require coroners to record this kind of information in the context of suicide conclusions,” a spokesperson said.
The MoD is considering how to respond to the setback.
An MoD spokeswoman replied: “We take the well-being of all those who have served extremely seriously and we are currently considering how we can better understand the cohort of veterans who take their own lives.”
Last week Mr Ellwood, a former Royal Green Jackets Captain, offered a public apology to the grieving families of veterans and serving personnel who took their lives this year and last, vowing to fight on in addressing the issue.
The family of a Warsop veteran who took his life in 2012 are campaigning for more to be done to prevent suicide among armed forces veterans.
Pte Lee Bonsall, 24, was found hanged by his wife when she returned to their home in Tenby, South Wales.
An inquest heard he was unable to cope with life after serving in Afghanistan.
Lee’s family believe his death was due to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused in part by the loss in combat of his friend Pte Andrew Cutts, who he served alongside.
Ken Bonsall Lee’s father, a member of the punk folk band Ferocious Dog, said PTSD had been like a ‘ticking time bomb’ for Lee and warned if more targeted help is not given to veterans the country could face a tidal wave of suicides.
Ken said: “Lee served in Afghanistan and lost his best friend.
“He never got over it. He came back a different lad and ended up taking his own life.
Ken said a lot of suicides by veterans slip through the net - they are just classed as suicides.
“Lee had got out of the army and we thought he was alright, but it was just a matter of time before he took his life really .
“Our coroner said Lee was the first veteran who was put down as dying due to war . If he hadn’t have gone to war he would still be here now.
“He wouldn’t have suffered from PTSD and he wouldn’t have taken his own life.
“Our local village has got a memorial stone at the cenotaph- a proper war stone it’s the only one in the country of its type and there should be more.
If he had died in Afghanistan he would have been a hero. If they take their own life it is seen as a coward’s way out - but it’s wrong there is a stigma around PTSD and it is a taboo.”
”Lee was suffering from PTSD. He finally got talked into going to the doctors - he’d only been married seven months. Everything was rosy.
“But he knew there was something wrong in the way he felt.
“They never even knew that Lee was in the Army . The never asked it and he wasn’t going to tell them. He was ashamed.
“He didn’t want to say: “I was fighting and I lost my best mate, it should have been me”.
“He just packed it away at the back of his mind and in civilian life dealt with it the best he could.
“He couldn’t in the end.
“He went for help. He was put on anti-depressant tablets and he filled a form in. He fell through the net. There were failings with the NHS.”
Mr Bonsall says the form should have asked if Lee had been in the Armed Forces to flag up he may have had PTSD rather than treating him for depression.
He added: “What the MoD knows should be shared with the NHS when people come out of the Army. It is a closed shop they don’t pass information on.
“We only found out after he died that Lee had attempted suicide while he was in the Army.
“He went AWOL and they put him in military prison and that is how they looked after him.”
The family have set up a trust, the Lee Bonsall Memorial fund .
Ken said: “It keeps his name alive, we raise awareness of PTSD and raise money for other charities in Lee’s name.
“Through the band we always mention Lee’s fund and raise money for PTSD.
“A lot of people get in touch with me through that are suffering from PTSD or who know someone suffering from PTSD and they into the band because we write songs about it.
I haven’t got the answers - I always say if anyone out there is suffering from PTSD it can be treated. All you have to do is talk and reach out. There is only them that can do that when the time is right.
“All we want to do is save one more veteran or family from going through what we went through.
“Veterans I know who wanted to commit suicide have got in touch with me and said in knowing your story you have saved my life.
“Just through being open and talking about Lee.
“Veterans at first have to want to have help. That’s the hardest thing, if they say there’s nothing wrong with them. If they go to the doctor’s that is usually the last chance. If they don’t get help suicide could be just around the corner. It can be treated you just have to get them to talk in the first place and to want it.”
“I think a bigger campaign could be done nationwide by the Government and MoD to help people.
They spend millions on making some of the best soldiers in the world .
“The veterans who take their own life is like a ticking time bomb.”
“There will be more and more over the years - people who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. There are still people I know suffering who were in the Falklands war.
“It will be a tidal wave and there is nothing in place other than charities to help them.
“We’ve done a lot with Combat Stress and SAFA and homeless charities.
“Charity isn’t the answer it needs to be the NHS, the Government and MoD working together to put things in place.
“At Lee’s inquest, the recommendations by the coroner were amazing. He really backed us 100 per cent.
“We have seen a lot of coroners who brush things under the table and side with the MoD.
“The coroner recommended that the GPs should work with the MoD to makes sure their notes came together. If they register at a GP surgery one of the questions should be if they have ever been in the armed forces and if they do have problems they could pick up on it straight away.
“I don’t think any of it has really been done.”
Pt Bonsall died just a week after private Private Ashley Clarkson 23 also from Mansfield was found hanged suffering the same condition.
Lees tragic death due to post traumatic stress say family at inquest
Councillor Sean McCallum, an ex-soldier and Mansfield District Council’s armed forces champion said it was important for coroner’s to record veteran’s suicides.
He said: “There’s always a plausible deniability with regards to the responsibility that the MoD has.
“Whether experience in combat is the causative factor in somebody’s suicide or not is to be debated.
“I’m not saying it is not true because clearly it is.
“It may not be in every case, however we do need to know if there is a veteran and if there has been a suicide simply for being assured that the data we are getting is correct.
“Without the correct data we cant start targeting services appropriately.
“We need the data so we can say to the MoD there is a problem here and you can do more.
“I think the MoD needs to begin to accept its responsibilities .
“They are quite quick to say we do everything we can .
“I would draw a comparison with the New Zealand Defence force .
“Once you join the New Zealand Defence Force your health and well being is their responsibility even after your service has finished,
“In the UK it’s always been the case that once you leave the services you are on your won and the responsibilty of the NHS which is essentially for me a huge disparity in the attitude of supporting veterans in the community
If you are a veteran in New Zealand they look after you for life. In the UK when the MoD has finished with you, you are out of the door and not their responsibility and you are on your own.”
Read more about Sean here
Where to get help
If you are affected by any of the issues raised by this article, help and advice is available from these organisations:
Veterans Gateway: 0808 802 1212 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Veterans UK: 0808 1914218 (8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)
Samaritans: 116 123 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Help for Heroes: 01980 844280 (weekdays, between 9am and 5pm
Royal British Legion: 0808 802 8080 (8am to 8pm, 7 days a week)