Britain must address a suicide risk among Afghanistan veterans by reassuring them that their service was not in vain, the UK’s Armed Forces Minister has said.
James Heappey raised the fear of suicides among veterans after the 20-year Nato campaign ended in a humiliating defeat to the Taliban.
Mr Heappey sowed confusion on Monday by initially claiming that some former soldiers had taken their lives in recent days, before later retracting this.
He said a suicide note on social media regarding a former member of his battalion, which he had taken as real was under investigation by defence officials, who are not sure of its authenticity.
Mr Heappey, himself an Afghanistan veteran, said he was embarrassed by the error but maintained that suicides were a grave concern.
“That cohort of Afghanistan veterans will be feeling more vulnerable right now,” he told broadcasters. “They will be questioning whether their service was worth it.
“I know how much the veterans community is hurting. We need to keep telling them that what they did, they should be proud of.”
“We need to get our arm round those people right now and make sure that they’re OK and that they get all the help that they need.”
There were 457 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Many others continue to suffer mental health effects from their service, Mr Heappey said.
Help for veterans
Politicians have sought to stress the achievements of the Nato campaign, including the prevention of terrorist attacks planned from Afghanistan.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has highlighted the improvement in education for Afghan children, especially girls.
But many former soldiers, including some such as Mr Heappey who are now politicians, have been dismayed by the swift unravelling of the 20-year effort.
The head of a veterans’ group in Germany has expressed concern that disillusioned former soldiers could be radicalised by political extremists.
Mr Heappey said support for veterans should come from a mixture of government funding and donations to military charities.
He said there had been too many suicides over the last 10 years linked to soldiers who served in Afghanistan.
“Asked whether he understood the anger of veterans, he said: “I do, and I am intensely fearful for what that means for the veterans’ community, for their mental health.
“The sad reality is that as an Afghanistan veteran I’ve spent much of the last decade feeling like the country has moved on.
“What’s happening now is politics, it’s a set of political judgments, but it doesn’t in any way invalidate or diminish their amazing achievements during their tours.”