The Last Ambush? Aspects of mental health in the British armed forces


War Trauma Hits Young Soldiers Hardest: New Report

Post-war mental health problems are most common in young soldiers from disadvantaged backgrounds; also in veterans who left the forces in the last decade.

The report, The Last Ambush?, draws on over 150 sources, including 41 British military mental health studies, as well as testimony from veterans.  It shows that,

  • compared with older personnel, younger recruits are significantly more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to drink at levels harmful to health, and to behave violently on their return from war.
  • young recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds are at greatest risk.  They are more vulnerable to stress, more likely to be given jobs that are more exposed to traumatically stressful events on the battlefield, and more likely to lack strong social support when they leave the forces in order to manage the effects of a mental health problem they may be experiencing
  • mental health problems are also alarmingly common among war veterans who left the forces since 2003.

The report calls for the policy of recruiting from age 16 to be reviewed so that the greatest burden of risk is not left to the youngest, most vulnerable recruits to shoulder.  Raising the minimum age of recruitment to 18 would ensure that recruits share the risks more equally and that they assume them at the age of adult responsibility.  The report notes that the UK is the only state in the European Union to recruit from age 16 and one of only 19 worldwide; most state armed forces now recruit only adults.

The report includes testimony from veterans and discusses in depth:

  • how and why some veterans experience mental health problems
  • the limitations of mental health research in military groups
  • the role of adolescent maturity and childhood adversity
  • the role of military culture, structures and operations
  • the role of social and structural support after leaving the armed forces
  • why raising the minimum age of recruitment to 18 would better serve the interests of young people in respect of mental health risks

In conclusion, the report considers that,

"Veterans’ trauma proceeds from the crucible of war, in which extreme violence leads to substantial numbers of psychologically wounded people. Many will live with this insidious legacy of warfare for the rest of their lives. The scourge is war itself. We as a society must realise that we cannot support wars without also condoning the traumatisation of combatants and civilians alike. We can choose health or war, but not both."

Download the full report (PDF 1294kb)

Download the Executive Summary (PDF 268kb)

Read the press release: War trauma hits young soldiers hardest: new report

Read the ForcesWatch response to the Ministry of Defence's statement about The Last Ambush, 28 October 2013

Scottish Parliament Petition

ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament to:

  • scrutinise armed forces visits to schools in Scotland
  • provide guidance on how such visits should be conducted
  • ensure that parents are always consulted.

The petition is now being heard by the Scottish Parliament. See more info.

Sign the petition to raise the age of recruitment

We call on the UK Government to stop its policy of allowing 15 year olds to apply and 16 and 17 year olds to be recruited into the Armed Forces.
sign petition   download paper version   
sign here if not in the UK

British army: one young recruit's story, The Guardian 2013