Having been profoundly disturbed by recent figures suggesting that 1 in 10 prisoners in the UK prison system is an ex-soldier, disturbed by the amount of homeless people that come from an ex-service background and disturbed by how many of our ex-service men and women are cast adrift suffering post-traumatic stress after they leave the military, I was keen to see what mechanisms the Armed Forces had in place to remedy these issues. So, on Saturday 25th April I took myself off to the Armed Forces trades fair (Recruitment Day) in Belfast, to engage with serving personnel and the families of potential recruits. I decided that as well as quizzing the camouflaged salesmen, I would also approach the Mums and Dads with a view to informing them of the less appealing side of life as an Army recruit.
Bearing in mind the threat from those opposed to the peace process in Northern Ireland, security at the recruitment day was very visible. This ranged from Police, walkthrough and handheld metal detectors. There was however, no way my back pocket full of VFP literature was going to be picked up by any of these counter measures.
Once inside I did a quick walk round to survey my surroundings before approaching some of the soldiers, both Regular and TA. I spoke with serving representatives from various Regiments and Corps and I was very interested, although not surprised to hear, that the mechanisms the Army employ to those returning from combat have changed little from when I left the Army in 1993. The Soldiers spoke of a decompression period upon leaving the battlefield, which was basically a process of handing in weapons and going on a two week adventure training/beer drinking exercise in Cyprus. This was followed by a period of leave and then back into uniform. I pressed on the issue of combat stress and were there any manifestations of this whenever the men/women returned to duty. As expected there were tales of certain lads that had been arrested for fighting and even stories of men who had failed to return at all.
Everyone in uniform I spoke to knew of someone that had ‘Gone of the rails’ or someone who’s ‘Spring had come out’, directly as a result of their time in service. I was heartened to hear that none of the junior ranks were swallowing the ‘For Queen and Country’ line and most definitely, no one enjoyed the badge of hero that was being bestowed upon them by the war hungry media. I was very concerned at the amount of children that were being enthusiastically shown rifles and heavy machine guns, being encouraged to look through the sights and fire off the action and I felt it very irresponsible of Army not to also include details of what happens at the receiving end of these weapons. Then again like any rogue, second hand car salesman, you’re never going to get the whole story.
Despite the generally warm reception from the soldiers I spoke to, there is always an exception to any rule and this came in the form of an early twenties TA Officer who when I offered some VFP material to, went like an obedient puppy to his superiors which promptly caused a bit of a comical furore and I was confronted by no less than six security personnel of varying sorts that confiscated my VFP material. I was informed that if I handed out anymore literature I would be asked to leave.
From this point onward I was closely followed by a mixture of PSNI Officers, civilian security and Military Police. Every time I stopped to talk to the military personnel I was surrounded by several of my new, close friends. This continued for a few more occasions until I was asked to leave for being a disruptive influence.
So, out I went in a polite and dignified fashion after demanding that my VFP material was handed back, which it was. However, I wasn’t finished yet. Outside there were a number of families leaving the event with bags of camouflage tat, posters and Oath’s of Allegiances (One imagines), so I decided to stop them and let them know that I was a veteran who had served in Iraq and up the road in Antrim. I explained that what they had heard inside was the best case of sugar coating they were ever likely to hear. I explained about the Army’s ingrained system of bullying, collective punishment and general brainwashing of minors. I informed them of the way in which the Army casts their soldiers adrift like a rudderless boat once their time had been served and I furnished them with the statistics of homelessness and incarceration. Most Mums and Dads were aware of the damage our Nation had caused through our military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and I encouraged them to think very carefully about allowing their Sons and Daughters to become the next in a very long line of victims that our Government will use as war capital on Remembrance Sunday.
I will never be able to measure what, if anything, good at all came of my intervention at the Army recruitment fair, but if I have gotten into the minds of just one potential recruit or his parents, then it was a good day’s work.
Kieran Devlin served with the British Army in Iraq (Gulf War) and N Ireland, he is active with VFP Belfast