The forgotten army

Hundreds of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder are taking legal action against the MoD. Sufferer Edward Denmark tells Clare Dyer how the forces let him down

Falklands veteran Charles "Nish" Bruce died a horrifying death last week, smashed into pieces in a field after launching himself from a light aircraft. If it was suicide, it was not his first attempt: the demons that haunted him had already driven him to set fire to himself and to try to drown himself in the bath.

As the 20th anniversary of the South Atlantic conflict looms, the toll of casualties continues to mount, to the point that more veterans are now believed to have died by their own hand than perished on the battlefield. The South Atlantic Medal Association, which helps Falklands veterans, knows of 200 suicides among its own members and contacts, and estimates that the total now exceeds the 255 who died in battle.

Bruce's tale strikes unhappy chords with Edward Denmark, who landed in the Falklands as a young gunner on May 21 1992. His job was to try to shoot enemy aircraft down with Rapier missiles as they flew over dropping their bombs.

"They attacked on the first day we landed, nothing came on the second day and they came back with a vengeance on the following day. They were strafing and dropping bombs. They hit a number of ships in the anchorage. One ship exploded three days after we landed. That was utterly shocking. They killed a guy trying to defuse a bomb: he was vapourised.

"We were out in the open air. We camouflaged as best we could but you couldn't hide in a trench. I'd never thought of death before the Falklands. I didn't realise the body was so flimsy. A turning point was when the ship exploded - I knew there was a man in there who was vapourised. I sat there and sobbed."

Denmark says he came back "a completely and utterly changed man". He adds: "The pain was just unbearable. I felt lost to life. I had night terrors and couldn't sleep. I left the army 12 months later. I spent the next two years getting absolutely drunk, my family disowned me, I was out on the streets."

Destitute, he rejoined the army, only to be sent to Northern Ireland. He left with knee injuries for which he receives a war pension, but at no stage, he says, were his psychological problems ever addressed.

His story echoes those of hundreds of other veterans who are set to go to the high court in March in the biggest legal action ever brought against the Ministry of Defence, and one of the largest personal-injury claims to be mounted in the UK courts. A figure of 500m has been mentioned as the possible cost of losing. Even if the MoD wins, its final legal costs are estimated at 20-30m.

The five-month trial will look at the cases of 254 veterans of the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf and Bosnia, who have been diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder and other stress conditions. Waiting in the wings are another 1,600 would-be claimants, who will have their cases individually investigated if the initial claim succeeds and who could be in line for compensation too. For those with severe psychological disabilities who have been unable to work since the 1980s, individual claims could be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The ex-soldiers are not complaining that they were exposed to the risk of losing their lives in horrific battle conditions. That was part of the deal they signed up to. But they allege that the services failed in their duty of care in not preparing them for the horrors that they would meet - sights such as seeing a comrade's head blown off - not providing debriefings, not recognising their condition or treating it, not screening out vulnerable individuals from some areas of combat, and not helping them to adjust to civilian life.

"We signed up in the army and we well knew that one day we could be called upon to fight and lose our lives," says Denmark. "I've no argument with that. But they were well aware that when these men came back, what we'd been through and what we'd seen could have an effect on our mental health, and they did nothing about it. They should be held accountable for that.

"We were having discipline problems and fighting and they never picked up that anything was wrong. They closed their eyes to it. When we were leaving the Falklands, one of the sergeant-majors said, 'The holiday's over, now it's time for real work.' That was their debriefing. They never gave us any debriefing. For that I can never, never forgive them. There are men dead through their ignorance.

"I didn't know what was up with me. I just thought I was going barmy. They should have had something in place."

At 41, married with two children, Denmark is still marked by his experiences 20 years ago. "I have nightmares and night terrors and sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat. I take tablets for depression. It's peaks and troughs." Like Nish Bruce, he wrote a book about his experiences "to try and exorcise a lot of the demons. Someone told me if you get it all out it helps. But it didn't work."

Denzil Connick, secretary of the South Atlantic Medical Association, says: "Suicide is the last thing a person who is severely depressed can do to get out of the misery they're in. Before that, people suffer from extremes in mood swings, they have violent tendencies, they're so short-fused they get into trouble with the law. They have problems staying in relationships, they become homeless, dependent on alcohol and drugs, and some end up in the prison system unnecessarily."

While the MoD will not comment on the pending court case, it does acknowledge that some individuals suffer psychological trauma in battle and that it owes soldiers a duty of care. A key issue is what measures should have been taken and when, given the state of knowledge at the different periods in the 1980s and 1990s when the soldiers were sent into combat situations.

For the military, the case is seen as "a line in the sand", a fundamental test of the clash between the service ethos of collective responsibility and the civilian compensation culture that took hold in the 1990s. Service chiefs fear they will reach a point where they will no longer be able to ask men to take risks, since some will inevitably break down. After all, the risk factors that predispose individuals to develop PTSD - such as coming from a broken home and low academic achievement - are most prevalent in the social classes from which the forces recruit.

The US, which saw so many psychiatric casualties return from the Vietnam war, has led the way since then in recognising and tackling battle stress. PTSD was officially recognised as a psychiatric disorder in 1980 as a result of lobbying by American anti-war psychiatrists.

Among the 20 experts scheduled to give evidence at the trial are two of the world's leading specialists in combat stress, a psychiatrist and a psychologist employed by the US government, who agreed to appear for the claimants. Their written reports make up a key part of the soldiers' case.

But the Pentagon has thus far refused to let them take part. There is no power to subpoena anyone outside the jurisdiction of the English courts and, with the trial only weeks away, the claimants' lawyers have had to line up substitutes. "The American senior officials are not keen on adding to the difficulties of the UK MoD, given that we're close allies," said a source close to the case.

US soldiers are legally barred from suing over combat stress. In the UK the Crown Proceedings Act 1987, which removed crown immunity, opened the way (though this was unforeseen at the time) for actions over PTSD and Gulf war syndrome.

The claimants' lawyers argue that the wording of the act does not preclude pre-1987 claims, and that to bar them would also breach the Human Rights Act.

"It would be wrong to say the situation remained absolutely static between 1980 and 1996," says Trevor Ward of the Manchester law firm Linder Myers, which represents many of the former soldiers. "We're not suggesting that a breach occurred to the same magnitude in every case. In some cases there was adequate briefing and debriefing, but no treatment. In some there was a psychiatric history and the soldier shouldn't have been sent into battle. But across the board, we say, the system failed."