Veterans of Recent Conflicts – Conference – 28-29 May 2015

Victory Day London in association with the British Psychological Society, Combat Stress and AF&V Launchpad from the UK side, and with the Russian support from the Committee for External Relations of St. Petersburg, veterans' charity Afghanvet and GlavTourOperator have successfully held a conference on the theme of rehabilitation for veterans of recent conflicts, which took place on Friday 29 May 2015, at the PetroCongress Center in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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The previous day Thursday 28 May, a Declaration of Intention to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding between British and Russian Psychological Societies was signed by their Presidents: Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes and Professor Yuri Zinchenko. The signing ceremony took place in the eighteenth century Peter’s Hall of the St. Petersburg State University at exactly 17:00 in the presence of the British Consul General Keith Allan and a group of the University’s professors.

The ceremony was followed by a lecture on the British History of Military Psychology delivered by Professor Hacker Hughes to the University’s professorial and teaching staff.

Post-war Syndrome – a Common Enemy

Returning home from war, soldiers from many countries face the same problems. For many, the complexity of adaptation to life in peacetime transforms into alcoholism and even suicide attempts.

The British-Russian conference on the rehabilitation for the veterans of recent conflicts which took place in Saint-Petersburg on the 29th of May 2015 brought together leading British and Russian experts who know war first-hand as they themselves were in the "hot spots".

Great Britain was represented by President of the British Psychological Society and Professor of Military Psychology Jamie Hacker Hughes, Medical Director and Psychiatrist for Combat Stress Dr. Walter Busuttil (RAF Wg Cdr Retd), Founder of AF&V Launchpad David Shaw CBE (Army Maj Gen Retd). The conference was led by the Head of Victory Day London Eugene Kasevin.

Russian expert speakers included: Head of Psychology for the MoD Military University Professor Alexander Karayani, Chairman of NGO ‘The Committee of Soldiers-Internationalists’ Alexander Kovalev, President of a veterans’ support organisation Afghanvet Said Tulakov and Chairman of the St. Petersburg Centre of rehabilitation and integration of disabled war veterans Zafar Adylov.

The experts shared their experiences of different approaches towards common problems.

Mission: To win the war with the bottle

When the soldiers of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces left the Iraqi desert or the Catholic neighbourhoods of Northern Ireland to return to civilian life back home their worst enemy was not ‘Taliban’ or the Irish Republican Army gunmen, but the alcohol addiction and a desire to commit suicide. And for many of those who returned home alive it was very hard to emerge victorious from the fight with these new opponents.

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"Veterans have a problem with alcohol and a high suicide rate." Photo: freedomoutpost.com

The former officer of the British Armed Forces and Head of Clinical Psychology for UK Ministry of Defence who took part in the Northern Ireland conflict, and now a professor of military psychology at the Anglia Ruskin University, Jamie Hacker Hughes notes that the British soldiers after returning home consume large amounts of alcohol, mostly in the company other veterans. However, the abuse of alcohol is not the end of the problem. According to the Professor, many may turn socially dangerous by joyriding on the roads, driving their cars at prohibitively high speeds, as well as engaging in random and promiscuous sexual relations.

"Veterans have a problem with alcohol and a high suicide rate. During the first two years there is a higher risk of suicide." - says the Professor.

Some veterans, along with binge drinking get into debt or face many other psychological problems.

“This is particularly common with the female veterans.” - Hacker Hughes said.

According to another expert, the founder of a British charity veterans' organisation ‘Armed Forces & Veterans Launchpad’ (AF&V Launchpad) Major General (Retd.) David Shaw, the most common problem is the lack of self-confidence in the veterans themselves.

"We have worked hard to give them a roof over their heads and work placements, but it turned out that the main problem of the veterans is the lack of self-confidence" - said Shaw.

Who are the veterans in the UK?

In Britain, a veteran is any serviceman who visited a combat zone at least once, regardless of the length of time spent in the conflict. Quite often help is sought after by 18/19-year-old ex-soldiers. During the Gulf War in 1991 it was noted that the lower the rank of a soldier, the higher the mental stress that he received from participating in the conflict.

British soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Armed forces charities have raised concerns about the level of post-service support for soldiers. Photograph: Omar Sobhani/Reuters
British soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Armed forces charities have raised concerns about the level of post-service support for soldiers. Photograph: Omar Sobhani/Reuters

Overall, in the UK there are about 4 million veterans of various conflicts. Moreover, a third of them are over 75 and a quarter belongs to the age group of 85 years and older. If we talk about the typical age of a veteran, it is about 30 years of age, ten of which he spent in the services.

According to another British psychiatrist, a member of Task Force that liberated the British hostages in Beirut and who is also the Medical Director of a national British veterans organisation ‘Combat Stress’ Walter Busuttil, the largest number of veterans seeking help were involved in the Northern Ireland conflict. But recently the rapidly growing numbers of war veterans who apply come from the Afghanistan conflict.

What kind of assistance can a British veteran expect?

Her Majesty's soldiers, many of whom have spent more of their time abroad in military bases than in British cities, are often confused when dealing with everyday problems of a peaceful life. Having given most of their young years to warfare training and wars, they do not always have sufficient time to prepare for civilian life. In this case, there are several sources of assistance that can be offered, from competent cookery courses and personal finance management to assistance in buying a property.

They can use three main source of aid. First is the Ministry of Defence where veterans can seek help if their problems relate to their service. The MoD has a whole group of people who could offer psychological and psychiatric care to veterans, which includes psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses. Secondly, in some local hospitals and clinics there are specialists for ex-servicemen. Finally, there are quite a few public charitable organisations in the UK that specialise in assisting the veterans.

The largest charitable organisation in the UK that works with veterans is ‘Combat Stress’. It continually accommodates 6,000 veterans for clinical care. In 2014, Combat Stress had 2,300 applications. The organisation employs about 300 people. 60% of its budget comes from public donations, making the rest to be the UK government sources.

Combat Stress recognise that the veterans needing help are not always willing to search for support, and many do not know that somewhere there are people who can help them. Therefore, the organisation has special teams of retired military personnel and doctors who reach the veterans "in the field" across the country, informing them of what assistance they can expect.

"Over the past 8 years, we noted that the average age of seeking psychological help has fallen from 44 years to 41 years. This is a good trend. People have become used to asking for help," - said the Medical Director for Combat Stress Walter Busuttil.

Public donations remain a major source of funding for veterans' organisations in the UK.

"Unlike France, the UK government does not fully provide support for the veterans. We have to search, attract and collect charitable donations from the public," - says David Shaw.

Much of the support for the veterans in the UK comes from high-ranking officials and prominent businessmen. One of the obvious examples is Prince Harry who spent ten years in the army. It is worth noting that the Prince has repeatedly been on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to General Shaw, the representatives of AF&V Launchpad work not only with the veterans, but also with the active military.

"We meet with our soldiers before the conflict, during the conflict and after the conflict. We tell them that they can count on our help", - he said.

Shaw said that once referred to their organisation veterans can identify the meaning of life, interesting work in a team and the praising that they need so much.

"Half of the applicants do find new jobs and return to life. 90% get new useful life skills. Finally, all patients get motivated to further their lives", - concluded Shaw.

Russian specifics to the problems of veterans

We cannot say that the Russian war veterans face fundamentally different set of problems than their British comrades, but there are certain specific problems for the Russian ex-soldiers.

According to some Russian psychologists, Russian veterans cope better with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), loss of limbs, or the decline of health, because they believe that they fought for high values​ fulfilling their "international duty".

According to the chairman of NGO ‘The Committee of Soldiers-Internationalists’ Alexander Kovalev, Russian veterans of war often suffer from interpersonal problems and dissatisfaction with themselves.

“Some veterans have a sense of guilt because of the fact that they came back alive,” - said Kovalev.

Kovalev noted that problems arise from the lack of timely psychological help:

“If there is no timely psychological help for a veteran, he becomes not only unproductive for the society, but dangerous.”

Kovalev noted that 80% of the Afghan veterans say:

"If it was possible, I would go back to Afghanistan.”

However, according to him, every year this number is decreasing as people adapt.

He also said that the ex-military personnel from the war in Afghanistan refuse any clinical examinations considering themselves to be absolutely healthy.

A similar opinion is shared by the head of the Department of Psychology of the Military University, Doctor of Psychology, a professor and also a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict Alexander Karayani:

"People with disabilities from military conflicts in Russia do avoid the time-consuming diagnostic procedures."

According to him, only 5% of the Afghanistan and Chechnya veterans have post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"Most surprising it is only 4% of those have the expanded form of post-traumatic syndrome" - he continued.

78% experience social problems associated with the non-acceptance, isolation and lack of understanding from society.

Where is help in Russia?

In Russia, the aid to veterans comes from two main sources: State funding and public donations, which are collected by various veteran organisations.

Russia has 64 military hospitals for war veterans offering 60,000 beds.

As an example, the Omsk State Centre for the veterans’ regenerative therapy accommodates 5,000 veterans every year.

Professor Karayani noted that the rehabilitation in Russia for the most part deals specifically with the veterans that were actually involved in military combats, not all participants of armed conflicts.

He also said that the Russian specifics of work with veterans are different from the West as most Russian veterans are not eager to refer to the psychologists. Therefore the latter often have to be very ingenious to offer their assistance.

"We carry out our psychological work under the guise of personal development training. We issue certificates to the participants. Many veterans hold on to these certificates for 10 or more years saying that it was the best thing that happened in their lives," - he said.

Alexander Karayani recalled a story about one officer coming back from Afghanistan very depressed. If psychologists would have examined him then, the PTSD would have been easily detected. Later he was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union order and his psychological state has changed so radically he could recollect about the war without getting so stressed.

"In this instance it could be said that by recognising veterans as heroes we help them to overcome depression." - said Karayani.

A significant factor in the adaptation of veterans is not only their sense of themselves, but also their close circle of people, the society, with whom they have to interact. Many psychological centres and institutions in Russia provide training not only for the veterans, but also for their families who are taught appropriate ways of approaching and interacting with their veterans.

Professor Karayani noted positive changes in the social attitude towards veterans.

"We are now undergoing significant changes in attitude towards veterans. Finally, we started to recognise their achievements in sports, arts and sciences, which helps tremendously," - he said.

The Russian system of assisting the veterans also has its flaws. According to the chairman of the East-West Bridge Vladimir Dervenev, there was a case with one Second World War veteran who took part in the Soviet evacuation of Tallinn in 1941 [‘Russian Dunkirk’] and is also a Russian citizen, who could not get treatment in a Russian hospital. The reason was that even though he was a former Russian Navy seaman and a Russian citizen, he was not a residence permit registered citizen.

Eventually he was helped by a public charity and was admitted to hospital for treatment, but how many of those who fought for the interests of their country and still find themselves in a similar situation but without any help?

Community charities that rely purely on public donations without any government support play a very important role in veterans’ lives.

Colonel (Retd.) Zafar Adylov who is heading a charity ‘War Invalids' and who himself is a veteran of Afghanistan and Chechnya, spoke about an independent veterans’ rehabilitation centre, which was created by the veterans for the veterans and their families. The centre does not only provide them with medical care, but also assists with work placements. Former soldiers who returned from the “hot spots” hold many positions in the organisation.

In turn, the Committee of Soldiers-Internationalists sends their members-veterans and their families to spa resorts.

"We do this so their children would not pose them the question: “Daddy, what did you fight for?" - said the Head of Committee Alexander Kovalev.

Veterans are not only about the Second World War

In summary we can say that in Russia the culture of psychotherapy and psychological treatment remains to be undeveloped. Many ordinary people and especially the ex-military personnel view it as a shame to seek help from the "shrinks". Moreover, in Russia the term ‘veteran’ is still extremely unpopular when not used in the context of the Second World War. Often, the veterans of the Afghan and the Chechen wars are deprived of even a fraction of the social benefits and support offered to the WW2 veterans.

Here it is generally perceived that it is only those veterans of the Afghan and the Chechen wars who lost their limbs or whose health was severely damaged that truly deserve treatment and support. In this case, with so many “healthy veterans” in Russia, how many there are who suffer in silence because of lack of support and psychological help? Perhaps here we could learn something from our British colleagues.

Based on the original feature article of Alex Bogatischev, http://mil.press/