When normality is then understood to be abnormality, Pandora’s box is opened and if the necessary professional and empathetic support doesn’t then follow, the results can and will be grave.
This statement is made in the context of the 300,000 plus military personnel who served in Northern Ireland within the context of the decades long terrorist campaign there.
As the first victim’s organisation to open offices in Great Britain in an effort to support the ‘hidden victims/survivors’ of The Northern Ireland Troubles, the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF) has an acute awareness of the sufferings experienced by former military personnel and indeed other civilians who have been impacted by The Northern Ireland Troubles.
It is well established that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often kicks in an average of 13 - 14 years post exposure to a trauma related incident. For those who were subjected to such exposures in the 1970s, many have suffered in silence for over 30 years.
The reality is that where the military are concerned, Northern Ireland is the ‘Forgotten War.’ Those military personnel, some 300,000 plus having served within the Regular Army units of the British Army are almost embarrassed to reference their service in Northern Ireland - why?
It was because of the intimacy of that campaign, it’s closeness to their own upbringing and the brutal guerrilla warfare techniques deployed by the republican movement which sought to provoke reaction and bring about the circumstances of civil war - they failed in that strategy.
Children were often used as human shields by terrorists and men, women and children were viewed as collateral damage in their quest to overthrow the Northern Ireland State.
We work with hundreds of ex-military personnel across the various regimental families - Fusiliers, Paras, Light Infantry etc. Very many of those who served in Northern Ireland are confused at what life has become for them, they had no prior understanding of what exposure to trauma related events might mean for their own future mental health and wellbeing.
One method of addressing veterans’ PTSD and other mental health complexities is to provide a supportive environment whereby they might return to Northern Ireland to engage with the issue or issues which are having a debilitating influence upon their lives.
SEFF has brought back veterans who have been unable to board buses for 30 years since they were blown up with their colleagues, others who are unable to cope with loud noises or who have concerns about the smell of petrol (due to the bombs of terrorism and wider civil disorder) and others still who have been unable to be in close proximity to someone with an ‘Irish’ accent because of the painful memories it conjures up for them.
In bringing them back to this place and laying on supportive and facilitated programmes many of these individuals have been able to face and ultimate defeat their demons. The normality of ‘The Past’ has been understood by them to have been abnormal but they are committed to having a normalised future.
There is certainly a need for a residential and respite-based centre for military veterans in Northern Ireland from which tailored programmes of support might be developed which would seek to support former veterans and their families to attain some closure and resolution to ills inflicted upon them and/or their colleagues over the years of the terrorist campaign. SEFF is committed to furthering this project in collaboration with others from across the veterans fraternity.
Ultimately the failure to provide adequately for veterans will consign more to die through their brokenness whether that manifests as suicide, alcoholism or other debilitating health related conditions and premature death.
We need to do better by our veterans and their families; they gave all for the rest of society after all.
• Kenny Donaldson is director of services with South East Fermanagh Foundation, which has opened an office in Great Britain to help veterans of the Troubles based there to understand mental trauma they are still suffering as a result of their Northern Ireland service — and to show them a path back to normality