Andrew Vine: We owe our returning forces a happier ending

A SOLDIER’S death went unreported and largely unnoticed a few days ago.

That’s because it wasn’t sudden or violent, just sad and lonely. It had been coming for a long, long time, 30 years and more, ever since he’d taken to the bottle to blot out how he felt.

We’ll call him Jim, which was one of his Christian names, though not the one his mates knew him by when he was young and full of life, or the family that he once had, or the people that he used to work with before he lost a succession of jobs.

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There was nobody there at the end, no-one to notice an unexplained absence, no friend to knock at the door of the scruffy rented flat where the curtains often remained closed all day just to check if everything was okay.

Whatever the medical term is on Jim’s death certificate, those who had lost touch but turned up at the funeral to mourn the man he’d once been know what killed him, because they knew he’d had dire warnings about drinking.

Friends had drifted away because of it. He was simply too much trouble, aggressive, argumentative, even sometimes violent. The man they liked had drowned in cheap vodka years before, leaving behind a bitter, seemingly permanently angry shell. Jim paid with all he treasured for his booze. It cost him his marriage, a fractured relationship with his children and his home.

And then, sometime between being seen for the last time and his landlord being called by another tenant and letting himself in, it cost him everything, not far short of his 53rd birthday.

Much had been asked of Jim, as it is always asked of all our armed forces. For him, life changed utterly, irrevocably and tragically as a result of what was asked.

It was the bloody and bitter fighting for the Falkland Islands in 1982 that scarred Jim. Not physically – he came out without a scratch – but he never came to terms with the deaths and injuries that he witnessed, the loss or maimings of friends in their late teens or early 20s he had laughed and joked with only weeks before.

The care of these young men, physically unharmed but hurting nonetheless, was in some cases non-existent. A gruff, tough-it-out attitude prevailed, and Jim, like many another fighting man, was told: “Go home, get drunk and forget about it.”

He did go home, and he did get drunk. But he couldn’t forget about it, and so he went on getting drunk, leaving the army that had given his life a framework since he had left school at 16 and drifting ever-downwards through a spiral of dead-end jobs and a disintegrating home life.

It was a far cry from the homecoming parades, the applauding crowds, the people in pubs who insisted on buying a drink when they heard he was a soldier.

Soon there will be more cheering crowds at homecoming parades, this time from Afghanistan. The end of British involvement in that protracted and vicious conflict is mercifully in sight after more than a decade during which one of its most abiding images has been Union Jack-draped coffins being borne from RAF transport planes.

There must be no Jims amongst the young men and women marching to mark their homecomings, no hurts allowed to remain secret, no lives left to descend into despair.

Care of combatants is infinitely better now than it was 30 years ago, the depths of trauma that fighting can cause more thoroughly understood and acknowledged, partly thanks to work done in the aftermath of the Falklands.

Nevertheless, we under-estimate too easily how profound the effects of combat can be on our armed forces. Politicians spouting high-minded stuff about the military covenant and society’s duty of care to fighting men and women often enough have spent little time with them, and have an imperfect understanding of war’s personal legacy.

The partners and families of those who fight know best of all that the person who walks back through the door at the end of a tour of duty can be very different from the one that left to begin it.

There can be mood swings, jumpiness, difficulty in settling as the readjustment is made from a state of mind necessary to fight – and kill if necessary – to the everyday routines of peacetime life.

The nature of the conflict in Afghanistan has not helped. For so long, no end seemed to be in sight, and the shadow of tour after tour hung over frontline units even as, with crass insensitivity, redundancies amongst military personnel were being announced amid casualty reports.

It’s certain that every member of our armed forces who remain in Afghanistan will be counting the days until they see its badlands disappearing below their aircraft window for the last time.

They face a long journey home. For some, another difficult journey to come to terms with what they have done and seen will begin when they land. We owe them more than our thanks – we owe them the help and support to make that journey have a happier ending than Jim’s.