‘I'm truly sorry’: Defence minister apologises to families 'let down' by government over armed forces suicides

  • Video report by ITV News correspondent Paul Davies

ITV News understands there have been nine suicides among serving or former members of the military this year - equating to more than one a week.

In 2018, it is believed this figure reached 80 suicides.

Speaking to ITV News, Defence minister Tobias Ellwood expressed his regret over this statistic.

“I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry that they feel the armed forces, NHS, government has let them down", he said.

Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood wants Boris Johnson to quit. Credit: ITV News

“Every single one of those suicides is a tragedy and I absolutely feel for every single one of those families and friends that are involved. There are no words that can replace their loved ones. We must improve, we must make sure that others are not following our suit."

But for those previously affected by military suicides, they are “disappointed” the rate remains as high.

Aaron Black took his own life in December 2011, aged 22, just seven months after leaving the army.

He had been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD while in service after witnessing the deaths of several friends in Afghanistan.

Aaron Black took his own life in December 2011 after serving in Afghanistan. Credit: ITV News

The government insisted he wasn’t regarded as “vulnerable” when he left the service, but his mother, June Black, obtained his confidential military medical record which showed that before leaving the service he “continued to have suicidal thinking”.

“I feel disappointed that we’re still hearing the same things”, she told ITV News.

“It’s seven years down the line, but it can still trigger in me - that bad place when the police came to my door that night, banging on my door to tell me they’d found Aaron.”

June is frustrated the issue still exists after being given assurance by then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012 that young soldiers will be given more support.

A letter to June Black from then Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the death of her son. Credit: June Black
A letter to June Black from then Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the death of her son. Credit: June Black

“Why are we still saying this and it’s 2019.”

“It seems to be happening more than in 2012… the so-called help out there isn’t working. The military has to take more responsibility of the care and well-being of Its employees and that shouldn’t end on exit.”

"Do they need to speak to mums like me instead of government ministers. I don’t know. Are they listening to people like me? Because if they listened to me back in the day, maybe all these young lads and girls could’ve been saved."

This has been echoed by Jim Wilde from Veterans United Against Suicide who has helped collate the number of armed forces suicides in the United Kingdom.

"We need to get in at grassroots with this. When a soldier joins the forces, part of their training and syllabus should be mental health", he told ITV News.

"You got a weapon in your hand, it's not all about what's on the end of that weapon and the life you take. It's on the guy who is using the weapon - how is taking a life affected him? He'll finish his tour - six months in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"At the end of that, they'll pay lip service to the guy. He'll pack his bags up and go home, and he's going to unload all of that trauma on his family and that's where the PTSD comes in and the family soak up that and it's not just the soldier who gets it - the family gets it."

"And when a soldier takes his life - it's like passing it onto the family. Pass the parcel - the family live with it, and so on", he added.

This quality of care for soldiers once they leave service has been consistently highlighted as an area for improvement.

Mr Ellwood told ITV News that provisions were “much better” and progress is being made.

“We now check on our armed forces personnel 12 months after they’ve left- we’re now doing much more proactive work to look after those people. Anyone who’s registered any sort of concern- they’d be transferred into an in process in the NHS as well.“

“We’re looking to produce veteran ID cards that are coming out as well. Our entire veteran community - the family, the kids around them - all of them need to be aware of the support that is available, can be made available if required.

“It’s so important to stress that the majority of those that take suicide are people that are bottling things up, and it’s important that we intervene before it’s too late.

It is an issue that resonates with Mr Ellwood – his uncle, a veteran, took his own life.

“I can’t put myself into any shoes of any person that’shaving to deal with the loss of someone that’s close to them. I lost my uncle, I didn’t know him, but I know he was a veteran as well.

“I did ask my family what more could’ve been done to try save his life. Of course, we must all ask ourselves what more we can do to advance this forward."

Neil Davies is one veteran that has benefited from mental health provisions.

He joined the Parachute Regiment at the age of 17 and was in a combat zone by his 19th birthday.

He left the army in his twenties – an experience he describes as “falling off an ocean-going liner.”

“You fall off, you’re at sea, you’re drowning, and you reach out for anything to help”, he told ITV News.

“I went all the way down to the bottom. I was homeless, I was on drugs and it was at that point where I failed a suicide attempt. I kind of put myself in danger - I didn’t know whether to live or die and that point I thought “I’ve got to do something about this””.

He was diagnosed with PTSD and was supported by NHS Veterans’ Mental Health Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service in London.

“I know guys and girls now that are involved with lots of veteran organisation – some wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for centres like this in dealing with their mental health.”

What to do if you or someone you know needs help:

  • If you are in distress or need some support, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on 116 123 or through their website.

  • Veterans' mental health charity Combat Stress is available 24 hours a day on 0800 138 1619 for veterans and their families, 0800 323 444 for serving personnel and their families, via text on 07537 404719, or through their website.

  • Veterans' charity SSAFA is available on 0800 731 4880 or through their website.

  • The Government's Veterans' Gateway offers advice and help for veterans seeking support and can be contacted on 0800 802 1212 or through the website.

  • Mind offers a helpline on 0300 123 3393 from 9am to 6pm.

  • Rock 2 Recovery - which helps veterans suffering from stress and their families - can be contacted on 01395 220072 Monday to Friday between 9am and 4pm, emailed at Support@rock2recovery.co.uk or through their website.

  • If you have lost a loved one in the military to suicide you can contact Jo Jukes who has created a private support group.