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As a soldier, I used to be sceptical about the significance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – about the idea that strong men could be reduced to a shadow of their former selves by the experience of war. I might have stayed that way, had I not found myself commanding troops in Afghanistan.
In 2006, 3 Para was the first UK combat unit to be sent into Helmand province. Fifteen of my battle group were killed in action, and another 46 seriously wounded. By the time we returned to Britain, any cynicism had disappeared.
The fighting 3 Para engaged in has been described as the most intensive combat experienced by the British Army since the Korean War. Isolated bases came under constant attack from enemy assaults, mortars and rocket fire. Patrols were close-combat affairs in high-standing crops, where the Taliban could often be heard moving in the next stand of maize prior to the start of a firefight. The increasing sophistication of roadside bombs became an enduring dread.
While we, and the other Army and Marine units that followed us, served valiantly and admirably, the experience of Helmand left a mark on all of us: the loss of close friends and comrades, combat fatigue, the constant stress of facing death or serious injury. But while most of us readjusted to the peacetime world and reintegrated with our families, for some the mental trauma had become too deeply embedded.
Since 2006, hundreds of thousands of British troops have fought in Afghanistan. Numerous studies have indicated that between 10 and 20 per cent of soldiers returning from these combat zones are suffering, or will suffer, from PTSD. Yesterday, the charity Combat Stress announced that it has seen a 57 per cent increase in the number of Afghanistan-related referrals over the past year, from 228 to 358. Given the estimated incubation period of between seven to 14 years, there are bound to be many more.