A national charity has called for a change in the law to settle a row at the heart of Government and make monitoring the rate of suicides among military veterans compulsory.
An investigation by JPIMedia Investigations last summer - which prompted a national debate - revealed that the Government does not monitor how many former service personnel take their own lives, amid fears that the number of cases is spiralling.
Allied nations like the US, Australia and Canada all record the number of veteran suicides closely, having found significant increases in the past decade.
Campaigners say official UK figures are now also vital to help traumatised military heroes.
Since we highlighted the issue, Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood announced the Government would begin a study into suicide rates among veterans who previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also said in November that it was his ambition “to understand from every coroner whether an individual death is a veteran or not”.
It does need to be recorded. I don’t think it is hard to find out if someone was in the army. The MoD have good records.Chris Bennett, army veteran
However, JPIMedia Investigations can now reveal a row at the heart of Government over the issue, with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) claiming it is not feasible for coroners to record veteran suicides.
MPs on the Defence Select Committee have also been keenly pursuing the issue of military mental health, publishing their first report last July. It recommended that the Ministry of Defence work with the justice departments across the four UK nations to work out from existing suicide records whether someone had been a veteran.
A second report by the committee, due to be published on Monday, is expected to further press the Government for progress.
Jeff Williams, a former Royal Marine Sergeant Major and campaigner with the Birmingham-based group Veterans Against Suicide, told JPI that he is “devastated” to hear that the MoJ has ruled out support from coroners.
He said: “I am not surprised but I am pretty devastated because a lot of people in the veterans community have hung their hats on this happening.
“We were under the impression that this was in the late stages of being implemented and it wasn’t going to be a problem.”
His group has recorded the suspected suicide of five veterans and four serving members of the forces so far this year, with 80 former and current service personnel believed to have taken their lives in 2018.
It should be straightforward for coroners to ask families if their loved ones were veterans, he said.
His organisation can verify “with one phone call” whether someone was a veteran or not.
“This is just a cop-out in my opinion,” he said.
Dr Walter Busuttil, Medical Director of national veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, said it is now up to MPs to step in and make it a statutory responsibility on coroners to record veteran suicides.
“If they want to record things properly then they are going to have to change the law,” he said.
He said it sounded a viable idea for coroners’ IT systems to be linked to MoD pension records, to verify if someone was a veteran.
“There are precedents, it can be done,” he said.
However, the MoJ said it was too complex for coroners to record veteran suicides, in particular because of the potential difficulties of accurately establishing a victim’s occupational history.
“For this reason, there are no plans to require coroners to record this kind of information in the context of suicide conclusions,” a spokesperson said.
The MoD is considering how to respond to the setback.
An MoD spokeswoman replied: “We take the well-being of all those who have served extremely seriously and we are currently considering how we can better understand the cohort of veterans who take their own lives.”
Last week Mr Ellwood, a former Royal Green Jackets Captain, offered a public apology to the grieving families of veterans and serving personnel who took their lives this year and last, vowing to fight on in addressing the issue.
Christopher Bennett, 33, is a former army chef from Coventry who has been living in Belfast for 14 years.
He left the army after being hit on the head by a gang and going blind. But because nobody in the army believed him, he says, he suffered bullying and was discharged with just £13,000 with no further support.
His army pension was not properly administered, which he says has left him with a lower standard of living than he was entitled to.
Last winter he went days without food in order to pay for heating for his young son and to feed his dog.
He tried to take his life a number of times since going blind and leaving the army.
In June 2017 he had a “meltdown” and ended up “chopping off my baby toe”.
“I wanted to transfer the emotional pain I was feeling into physical pain in order to get rid of it.”
Over the past year his church and gym routine has helped lift his mood.
“But I now have a really crap standard of living.”
Last winter he regularly went without food so he could afford heating for his young son and to feed his dog.
He thinks it is important for government to start tracking veteran suicides.
“It does need to be recorded. I don’t think it is hard to find out if someone was in the army. The MoD have good records.
“I think this would show the government how much we need to act and how much something needs done. Here is the proof, here is the numbers, now do something about it.”
Defence Select Committee member Gavin Robinson MP of the DUP said government must have a sound evidential base to shape the services veterans need.
“It has concerned the Defence Select Committee for some time that they simply don’t know how many Veterans have taken their own lives as a result of the experience from their gallant and noble service,” he said.
“The current research on Afghanistan and Iraq veteran deaths and suicides [announced in October] is most welcome, but we won’t cease in our efforts to get the information needed and is legislative change is required, so be it. Be assured, the Defence Select Committee will continue our work with MoD to deliver the services our Veterans require. They deserve no less.”
Robert McCartney, chairman of veterans mental health charity Beyond the Battlefield in Newtownards, praised the JPI series in July last year.
“As Chairman of Beyond the Battlefield, I express my thanks to all the News Letter / JPIMedia Investigations reporters across the UK involved in the reports in July 2018 which brought the issue of veteran suicides to the attention of the public, the national UK media, Central government and Armed Forces Minister Tobias Ellwood,” he said.
“As Specialists of Military Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicide and related issues we feel that at last Government is taking the high number of suicides seriously. Only last week the Defence Minister apologised personally to suicides victims’ families for the lack of help available.
“But veteran suicides continue to rise and yet the UK is not recording their numbers. This gives veterans a feeling of hopelessness.
“There are many forms of suicide, some immediate and others over a longer period through alcohol and drugs, but the only deaths recorded as suicide are those with an immediate effect. But these deaths are all preventable and if recorded properly it would give them appropriate attention for Government treatment.”
UDR/RI aftercare: 9042 0145
UDR Ben/Fund: 028 9042 0652
Royal Irish Ben Fund: 9042 0629
Veterans UK (MoD pensions/compensation): 0808 1914218
The Samaritans: 116123
Lifeline NI 0808 808 8000
Alcoholics Anon: 0800 8177 650
Vets’ Gateway: 0808 802 1212
Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619
Help for Heroes: 01980 844280
RBL: 0808 802 8080
Beyond the Battlefield: 028 91 228 389