Military veterans should be encouraged to train as counsellors to help colleagues who need a helping hand, a top officer believes.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Chris Parker supports thousands of veterans across Sussex and the South East as chairman of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment Association.
He is writing to the Ministry of Defence, calling for funding to train ex-servicemen and women to become counsellors, as well as urging officials to fight the stigma that all veterans are ‘mad, bad, or sad’.
Lt Col Parker said servicemen could identify with the issues facing those leaving active duty, while providing opportunities for veterans would help address challenges they face in finding employment.
He said: “If we can fund a small organisation of military and ex-military men and women who are trained counsellors then we will manage a lot of the problems.
“They are perfect people for it.”
PTSD ‘not an epidemic’
Lt Col Parker, born in Chichester and who was once Chief of Staff for the famed Desert Rats brigade in the Middle East, said post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was among a ‘number of issues’ veterans faced.
But he warned PTSD cases were often mislabelled, and ex-military personnel often suffered from ‘adjustment reaction’, in which they struggled to acclimatise to civilian life.
“It is not an epidemic,” he said.
“We don’t find it to be prevalent among all veterans but like blue-light services a lot of people can be in jobs where there is a higher risk of being affected later and we are all in that group.
“We are shrouded and masked by a different problem which is an adjustment which most find a problem.”
He explained basic things most people took for granted, such as paying bills, were not responsibilities those in the military would have faced.
It was the overwhelming task of integrating back into society, away from the close-knit forces communities, which often led to issues, he said.
“The military, and in particular the infantry, recruits tough men, often from tough backgrounds, and moulds them into a team where they look out for each other 24 hours a day,” he said.
“It is an incredible system but the problem comes with breaking those links and you end up back in a town or village somewhere in Sussex.”
With fewer public venues for veterans to visit, like Royal British Legion clubs, Lt Col Parker said veterans now turned to social media to keep in touch with military colleagues.
Organisations like the regiment association are effectively the ‘gap’ between the veteran and the likes of the NHS, he said.
A range of support services are outlined on the association’s website here.
Lt Col Parker believed lives had been saved because servicemen had turned to the association for help.
Recalling how he helped one former soldier, he said: “He was saying he was ok and I realised he was shaking a bit. I said ‘Are you sure’ and he told me he had thoughts of taking his own life.
“That was the first point we were able to get access and give care.
“That doesn’t mean that person is a bad person, he just needed that extra encouragement and I don’t yet believe a civilian counsellor, having been through the whole thing, can fully understand the situation we are in.”
The experienced Army veteran said he had previously received counselling for PTSD, which he described as ‘exceptional’.
But he feared it was taking too long for appointments to be made when people plucked up the courage to reach out.
He said: “I tested it myself recently and asked one agency for some help. I was given a one-hour appointment in six weeks’ time.
“In that time someone may have self-harmed or worse, or decided to leave it.
“To be told you have got an appointment in six to eight weeks is not acceptable.”
Speaking out a ‘huge leap’
Despite all the support in place, Lt Col Parker acknowledged persuading people to speak out about their issues was a ‘huge leap’ for those trained to be resilient.
He said: “We have trained people to be elite and outstanding in self belief and worth and to go and ask them to ring someone who they have never met and talk about all their issues and that they are not coping, it is a huge leap and the public have a huge problem understanding.
“We as a nation have trained those people to be able to operate in the extreme dangers of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to run to danger. How can we expect them to delete all that? We can’t.”
Lt Col Parker welcomed an invite by the Ministry of Defence to share his ideas on improving help for veterans once they left the forces.
As well as veteran counsellor training, he said the stigma that all veterans were ‘mad, bad or sad’ needed to be addressed.
“They are proud and wonderful people who have served their country,” he added.