At 11.00am on Friday 11 November, 1918 the guns along the Western Front fell silent.
One of the bloodiest wars in world history had ended, and an Armistice was signed.
Peace came – but at a terrible cost. Almost 17 million dead and 20 million military and civilian casualties.
From World War One to Today
Sadly, history has a way of repeating itself and wars continue to break out around the globe.
If you read or listen to interviews with military personnel and veterans – from WW1 to present conflicts – one common observation is mentioned, often with deep-seated emotion.
The message is always the same.
They never forget the unimaginable atrocities and events they witnessed, or took part in.
Instead, they bury them inside, sometimes never talking about them – to anyone.
They often mention the tough journey to return to their civilian life because of this.
With the support of family and friends, most manage to deal with the issues and settle into an altered state of “normality” back home.
But for others, the flashbacks and fear are too strong, and the only solution is to take their own lives.
The Fear Never Goes Away
And it can be triggered in the most innocent of ways.
Disabled veteran, Paul Guest was taking part in the 2018 Invictus Games in Australia. But during a tennis match, he reacted with terror when a helicopter flew low over the court where he was playing.
His team mate, veteran Edwin Vermetten rushed over to Guest, held his face close to his and talked to him. Eventually persuading him to sing, to help him focus and calm his fear.
Guest conquered his feelings and went on to win the doubles match, with his caring buddy.
It doesn’t take much to trigger deep-seated fears.
Harry John Patch (1898-2009): WW1 Veteran
Harry Patch survived the First World War and, throughout his life, never talked to anyone about his experiences.
But in 2007, he agreed to be interviewed by Richard van Emden, a WW1 expert and author, and Steve Humphries, an award-winning film-maker specializing in social history documentaries.
They were interviewing veterans for a special documentary, WW1: The Last Tommies. For Patch, it was the first occasion he’d spoken openly and answered questions about this traumatic period in his life.
Although decades later, it was hard for him to talk about it.
On September 22nd, 1917, he’d been at the front near Ypres for four months, when he was hit by shellfire and evacuated. He didn’t find out until later that three of his five-man team had also been hit. But they’d taken the full blast, and nothing was found of them.
He died a couple of years after the 2007 interview, at the amazing age of 111.
Yet he’d lived with this trauma buried inside him – dealing with it alone – for years.
As well as surviving WW1, Harry Patch was briefly the last surviving combat soldier of the First World War from any country and for a short time, the oldest man in Europe.
Shell Shock and PTSD
Read any stories recounted by WW1 survivors and you could put the details into 2018 stories.
They mention the same issues.
Being unable to sleep, struggling to eat, awful nightmares and flashbacks. And how hard it is to find a way back into their family life.
During WW1 it wasn’t known as PTSD.
Because of the lack of knowledge on the condition, it was labelled shell shock, anxiety neurosis or psychosis.
And in extreme cases, sufferers were considered cowards and shot – a warning to the other men.
The Struggle to Find Help
I recently saw a grieving but determined widow being interviewed. Her ex-military husband had just taken his own life.
As a career soldier, he’d served on the frontline during several major wars including Bosnia and Afghanistan.
The psychological harm was cumulative, and he struggled with PTSD. The two of them desperately tried to find someone, somewhere who could help them manage the emotional turmoil that was dominating and destroying their family life.
But he was passed from one place to the next. Always referred on because, “ his case was complicated.”
In the end he didn’t get the help he and his wife tried to find.
And sadly, his solution was the same as hundreds of other military personnel and veterans.
He committed suicide.
But she was speaking out about it, just weeks after he died, because she’s determined to find ways to improve the care and support for other service personnel.
The Numbers are Awful
While researching information for this article, I found a study where clinical investigators suggested it was “normal” to have a small percentage of PTSD sufferers take their own lives.
Forgive me if I can’t find any reason to accept as “normal” that someone resorts to suicide, because they ask for help and never get it.
Consider for example –
- In the USA over 6,000 have taken their own lives during 2018. And frighteningly, in the young 18-34 yr old veterans, the rate has been rising annually
- In the UK, over 50 service personnel and veterans have taken their own lives during 2018, trying to deal with PTSD and other related issues
- In Australia over 200 veterans have taken their own lives since 1999. Far more than the number killed in conflicts during that same period
The numbers speak for themselves.
This can’t be allowed to continue.
“I’ve Got Your Six”
Military personnel struggle with losing their mates in battle zones. People they’ve developed unbreakable bonds with, whom they trust and depend on during conflicts.
But they shouldn’t have to deal with losing mates back on home ground. Because they can’t get the help they need.
On November 11, 2018 we commemorate the courageous individuals who went off to fight in the First World War.
But please give some thought to the men and women who continue to serve their country, and for whom the fighting never stops when they return home.
It’s just the enemy that changes.
UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123
Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.
USA, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.