My mother’s very first childhood memory was the end of the first world war. She leaned out of a window waving a flag and shouted “my daddy is coming home today”. This was an abstract happy thought. The reality, a large man, who evicted her from her mother’s bed, and from the first place in her mother’s affections, was another matter entirely. My mother very quickly decided “I don’t like that man”. It is lucky that he had the patience to overcome this and become a much loved father.
The three year old in the push chair in front of me today, waiting for the parade of homecoming soldiers in Stafford was not having a good time. I suspect that “coming home” is not always an easy thing, for many of the soldiers or their families.
All marriages are challenging, marriages at long distances are more so. The special experiences of people who have been in a conflict zone can create real distance between them and others who have not seen and cannot fully understand these things.
It was my daughter’s idea to come to the parade. I mentioned that there would be a ceremony to welcome the soldiers home, and she said we should be there. I had not thought of it, but I think she was right.
The soldiers are coming back to a drab and anxious time here, and I think it is good that there were plenty of people taking the trouble to turn out, making a welcome. There were old soldiers from previous conflicts, young cadets, the families, lots of people who just came, press photographers, and dignitaries. These matter. The Mayor in her red gown, The MP, the top brass with his red hat and gold braid, the judge in full wig, and the assorted ladies in extraordinary hats. All these have a part to play. We do need to say thank you to people who do this for us, and this is a kind of recognition.
The band played an odd assortment of music. This is the way to Amarillo, The theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. They marched, and paraded. The staff officer inspected the ranks, An officer gave a speech that no one could hear, and then they marched again. This time the crowds had thinned and I could see them much closer, see their faces. I could see that many of them were very tired.
The front page of today’s Independent is about Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry. He has been awarded the Victoria Cross. He makes the point that we still do not do enough to look after the well being of returning soldiers. Post traumatic stress disorder and various other ills caused by their experiences are still perhaps not taken as seriously as they should be. One of the difficulties with PTSD is that it can often take decades to develop to the point that people present for treatment.
It is interesting that the Lance corporal makes the point that he feels soldiers and ex soldiers should be treated by military specialists, rather than through the NHS. I wonder if he is actually saying something here about the difficulties of returning to “the normal world”. Soldiers living together in a conflict learn to become very close – a band of brothers – Perhaps in this world they come to accept their own vulnerability and that of others.
I don’t have a view on what or where is the best way to treat returning soldiers, but I do think we may all have something to learn by being more open to the fact that people do suffer from stress related illnesses, and that we should find ways to support them better.
We have people coming back marked by a difficult conflict. Many may also be leaving the service at a time when jobs are hard to find, If we do not find ways to support them well, and help them find paths back into civilian life, this may lay down a stack of problems for many years ahead.