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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 March 2008, 08:13 GMT
Living with the traumas of war
By Matt Precey
BBC News

British soldier on patrol in Baghdad
An increasing number of British servicemen are seeking help
If Corporal John Meighan has not been taking his sleeping pills, the dead Iraqi soldiers come to visit.

They sit around his bed and stare at him.

"One of them used to come up to my face but he had lips and no eyes, just sockets and they were badly burnt", he recalls.

Without the sleeping tablets, the British serviceman would be up several times a night with these nightmares - often waking up screaming.

Cpl Meighan had 10 tours of duty during his 14 years in the army.

He witnessed the consequences of allied bombing on the so-called Highway of Death, the road out of Kuwait City where retreating Iraqi columns were decimated during the first Gulf War.

It was when he returned home from this campaign that the nightmares began.

He is one of the 260 regular clients of retired Sqn Ldr Steve Pettitt, the east of England's Welfare Officer for Combat Stress, the ex-services mental welfare charity.

Sqn Ldr Pettitt spends his days driving around the region visiting men and women who are suffering psychological problems arising from their time in the armed forces.

Usually it is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which develops after someone has been exposed to some sort of traumatic event.

Sqn Ldr Pettitt said: "I have clients who at the sound of a plastic water bottle going pop in the street might hit the ground because they think it's a mortar."

They send us out to war but they don't pick up the pieces when they come back
Cpl John Meighan
Those affected can see relationships breaking down along with problems with alcohol, violent outbursts, difficulties in holding down a job, even homelessness.

Sqn Ldr Pettitt currently works with Northern Ireland veterans and people who have served in Bosnia and the first Gulf War.

But he believes the intensity of fighting in Afghanistan, and the operations in Iraq over the past five years, will see a big increase in his caseload.

He said PTSD can take hold more than a decade after the sufferer has left the forces.

Combat Stress nationally is facing a 27% increase in referrals in the past two years with 175 Iraq and 29 Afghanistan veterans currently being helped.

The charity has had to deal with nearly 1,000 new cases in the past year alone and more than 8,000 veterans are now registered with them.

Among the Iraq and Afghan vets being helped by Combat Stress, the eldest is 60, the youngest 21. Their average age is 32.

Image of soldiers
Regular mental health services can often not meet the needs of veterans
Half of Combat Stress' 6.5m annual expenditure is met by the Ministry of Defence and last October the Veteran's Minister Derek Twigg announced a 45% increase in the government's contribution.

Additionally, six special treatment centres are being set up around the UK as part of a two-year pilot scheme, with each one offering specialist therapy.

If these centres are a success, then the scheme will be expanded.

This is a recognition that regular NHS mental health services are often not able to meet the specific needs of veterans.

Sqn Ldr Pettitt said: "We've found that a client will go to the NHS and find they've nothing in common with what's being discussed in the therapy group, that the therapist doesn't understand at all what the person has seen."

Some of the experiences recounted by veterans during NHS group therapy sessions have been so horrifying that it left everyone in the room traumatised.

Cpl Meighan said he felt abandoned when he developed PTSD.

He said: "They send us out to war but they don't pick up the pieces when they come back."

He has a son who is a soldier currently serving with the Royal Anglians.

Kenny Meighan said some of his colleagues suffered mental distress following a recent tour which saw hard fighting in Helmand Province.

He said: "You live in a room with eight men and you see them sleeping and you see them having nightmares, shouting out.

"It just worries me because I've seen it first hand with my father - I don't want to come out like that and I don't want my friends to come out like that."

Cases rose by over a quarter in the past two years

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