YORKSHIRE’S Armed Forces are under their biggest strain since the Second World War as the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan and looming defence cuts have created a mental and physical health timebomb - with experts fearing a bleak future without urgent support for soldiers and their families.
The Yorkshire Post can reveal that next year all four battalions of the Yorkshire Regiment are braced to be deployed to Afghanistan, in a military commitment from the region the size of which has not been witnessed since the fight against Adolf Hitler.
Armed Forces charities are now warning that the ongoing scale and intensity of the operations could lead to a tragic legacy for the thousands of young Yorkshiremen and women heading out to fight for their country.
Today (SAT), the Yorkshire Post launches its Christmas Appeal in support of ABF - The Soldiers’ Charity, which in the past year has seen a 50 per cent leap in the number of Army families seeking its help, alongside a rocketing number of individual cases.
The Yorkshire Post’s campaign will raise much-needed funds for the charity, which has become a vital support service for soldiers and veterans. It was founded in 1944 as the Army Benevolent Fund to cope with the enormous strain following the end of the Second World War.
Lt Col Brian de la Haye OBE, the regional fundraising director for the ABF in Yorkshire and the North East, says the charity needs to double its annual income from £7m to £14m by 2015, to cope with the sheer scale of soldiers in need of its support.
“The current and future pressures are absolutely enormous,” said Lt Col de la Haye, who retired two years ago after a 35-year Armed Forces career.
“We have always been an army on operations, there has only been one year since World War Two that the British Army has not been on operations - that is something we are used to.
“But there is no doubt that the current tempo is higher than anything I have experienced and as a consequence the impact on the army is considerable.
“The intensity of this very violent operation, we fear, is clearly something which is a great concern in terms of the impact it has on soldiers.
“As a result, very young people are being exposed to situations that have a profound impact upon them.
“People now are leaving the Army and bringing with them potentially more emotional fragile issues which will need to be addressed.
“We see an enormous challenge ahead. The pace at which that challenge arrives is difficult to predict.”
As of October 2011, there have been 383 British deaths in Afghanistan (339 as a result of hostile action) - 30 of which were Yorkshire servicemen and women.
Meanwhile, there have been 534 serious casualties and 5,232 field hospital admissions up to September 2011.
While the Ministry of Defence (MoD) does not disclose a regional breakdown of the injuries, a new personnel recovery centre for wounded soldiers which opened at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire, this week, is braced to cope with a demand far outstripping anywhere else in the country.
Yet many experts fear it is the mental scars that will be the legacy of the brutal war in Afghanistan.
Combat Stress, the charity specialising in the treatment of veterans’ mental health, says the number now appealing for help with mental health issues is increasing by 10 per cent year on year.
But with the average veteran waiting more than a decade before seeking help, experts claim this number will soon spiral.
The Royal British Legion (RBL), which along with Help For Heroes works closely with the ABF in supporting serving and retired soldiers, has also seen a dramatic rise.
Brigadier Andrew Meek, CBE, the regional manager for the RBL in the North, said its officers in the region are seeing an annual growth of around seven per cent of soldiers asking for support, with increasingly younger people coming forward.
Army insiders have told the Yorkshire Post that the MoD cuts announced earlier this year as part of the biggest redundancy programme in decades which could see 11,000 jobs cut across the Armed Forces by April 2015, has compounded the stress on soldiers with morale now desperately low.
An MoD spokesman said: “The men and women of our Armed Forces are the bravest, most dedicated and selflessly professional people the country has to offer.
“And they are supported by some of the most committed and effective people in the charitable sector.
“The Government recognises the need to do more to ensure our Armed Forces, veterans and their families have the support they need and are treated with the dignity they deserve.”
• You can donate to our appeal by bidding for one of the 50 exclusive Christmas gifts we will be offering throughout November. The first ten auctions will be announced next Saturday, and you will be able to bid simply by visiting the Yorkshire Post website and clicking the links through to Ebay. Full instructions and details will appear here next week.
If you prefer to donate in the old-fashioned way, or if you can’t wait until next week, you can send a cheque made payable to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, to the Editor’s Secretary, Yorkshire Post, Wellington Street, Leeds LS1 1RF.