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Veterans Deserve Better

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For almost one hundred years Remembrance Sunday has offered an opportunity to reflect upon the horrors that people everywhere have suffered as a result of war. In Wales, the reminders of the realities of war can be found in all communities. Even the smallest village has a memorial to people whose lives were tragically cut short in during the fierce fighting of the First World War and Second World War.

The horrors of war are not just confined to the history books and the stories of older generations. In recent years, Welsh soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have also experienced those horrors. They have seen friends and comrades killed and maimed in battle. They have experienced being away from loved ones and of not seeing their children growing up. And the horrors need not leave visible scars and visible wounds either. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be the lifelong result of horrific war experiences and it can be as debilitating as any physical disability. The same applies to other co-morbid conditions such as TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), depression and anxiety-related disorders.

Wales has over a quarter of a million armed forces veterans - a disproportionate number of our population compared to the other nations of the UK - and cases of PTSD are rising and will continue to rise. Over the past decade many will have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rest periods between tours have become shorter and the increase in stress and pressure on servicemen and their families has had a devastating effect. We know that veterans are facing difficulties in re-adjusting to civilian life and are more likely to face homelessness, mental health problems, substance misuse, and in some cases may end up the criminal justice system. The National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) produced figures in 2009 that suggested that one in ten prisoners once served in the armed forces. These figures, Napo said, were up by almost a third in five years.

It should be a given that a country looks after those who fought for it in a war. However the treatment of our veterans shows that often doesn't happen. Soldiers tell us they feel abandoned once they are discharged; forced into the bureaucratic minefield of a benefits system, work capability tests that fail to treat PTSD as a disability, and into a health and social care system that fails to provide adequate treatment and support. Instead of ensuring good care for soldiers post discharge, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) is content to leave the care of veterans in the hands of charities - often small charities run by dedicated volunteers. More than two years ago I called on the first minister to make representations to the MOD, asking them to fulfil their obligations to armed service veterans in Wales by providing "the full psychological and practical support that they need."

Healing the Wounds is an example of one such charity. Largely operating in the valleys and area around Bridgend, it provides counselling and support to veterans suffering PTSD. However it has struggled for funds throughout its existence, with volunteers raising funds all over Wales to ensure their work could carry on. There are other small charities like this throughout Wales, operating on a shoestring. Far more help and support could be provided to these charities and the PTSD support groups like the one I visited in the Rhondda earlier this year. I will be paying a visit to the treatment centre operated by Healing the Wounds in Porthcawl this Friday. I will be speaking to veterans affected by PTSD and listening to what they want. The Party of Wales has already made a good start. In Westminster Elfyn Llwyd MP started a campaign to improve the treatment of veterans, which led to the MOD accepting the recommendations of an all-party group he chaired. Only this week, Elfyn also gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee investigation on veterans in Wales.

We need to do far more in identifying problems earlier such as ensuring mandatory mental health assessments as part of the discharge process and funding specialist support workers for veterans. They deserve better than relying on volunteers shaking buckets in Cardiff Airport at 5am.