‘Not a day goes by I don’t think about it’ Falklands hero on PTSD, suicide and war

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And Chris Howe MBE, who was himself badly injured when HMS Coventry, the ship on which he was serving as a Petty Officer, was sunk after being bombed by Argentinian jets using French Exocet missiles on May 25, 1982, says many Falklands heroes have ended up taking their own lives in the intervening years. The South Atlantic Medals Association (SAMA) even says they believe more servicemen have taken their own lives since the Falklands War than died in the conflict itself. Mr Howe, 64, a trustee of SAMA, who joined the Royal Navy as a 16-year-old in 1972, was speaking less than a month after the 38th anniversary of the end of the war on June 14.

The Islands were the centre of brutal fighting after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a task force to the South Atlantic to reclaim the British Overseas Territory following an Argentinian invasion on April 2.

In total 255 British soldiers – and 649 Argentinian ones – lost their lives and Mr Howe said from his personal experience, many are still dealing with the scars – both physical and emotional – decades later.

He told Express.co.uk: “The spectrum runs from people who are in no way affected going right through to extreme PTSD and even suicide which is the ultimate problem.

“It depends what you were doing down there, what happened to you and how your conflict went.

“From my knowledge, I was very badly burned, I took a bomb on the Coventry and I was the worst injured on the ship, I had 27 percent burns and lost a third of the skin on my body and was seriously ill.  I only just made it off the ship.

It’s affected me in such a way that there is not a day goes by when I don’t think about it

Chris Howe MBE

“It’s affected me in such a way that there is not a day goes by when I don’t think about it.”

Mr Howe, who served as a Communications and Electronic Warfare specialist on the ship, said: “When I talk to my shipmates who were onboard that day, some 19 of my shipmates lost their lives, two of which worked for me in my department, and there is a guilt thing there that if I had had them with me in the operations room with me – I didn’t, I sent them down to the first lieutenant – they’d have been alive today.

“Things like that play on you – but you make decisions and you have to live with them.

“But it affects you afterwards – you just try and get on with life as best you can using the South Atlantic Medals Association and my own HMS Coventry association and it provides that sort of friendship which you need to manage those very powerful emotions which ebb and flow during those gatherings throughout the year.

“Everybody is affected in different ways depending on what memories you have and what happened to you.

“I defy anybody who was down there not to think about it in some way, at some stage.”

Although the term PTSD is commonplace these days, Mr Howe said at the time of the conflict, there was little understanding of the long-term psychological impact of war.

Additionally, the war had come as a “massive shock” to the UK, marking the first time the nation had lost ships since World War 2.

He said: “I didn’t even know the term PTSD immediately afterwards in 1982.

“If you go back to the World War 1 and World War 2 they called it shellshock and in World War 1 they were calling them cowards.

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“Some of it is delayed shock and now they have labelled it post-traumatic stress disorder.”

One of the complicating factors was the unpredictable nature of trauma, which might take years to manifest itself, Mr Howe said.

He added: “I think in the early days there were not too many people presenting with it.

“I used to wake up in thunderstorms and I had a recurring nightmare where I was in a burning haystack and I was on fire and I had that for 18 months.

“I was offered to go and see a shrink, I was sent out to Naples straight afterwards so I was convalescing out there.

“So there were people you could go and see but I think most of the PTSD is late onset, it’s come in the middle and end years as we move away from it.”

Mr Howe explained: “For the 35th anniversary, three years ago in 2017, I went back down south to the Falklands with 12 of my shipmates from Coventry.”

During this trip they took the chance to lay a commemorative wreath for fallen shipmates, as well as visiting memorials for HMS Coventry,

He added: “When we got back, one of my guys, who was a co-organiser with me, went into PTSD big time, 35 years later.”

As for his own coping mechanisms, he said: “I managed to deal with it.

“I was ordered to go and see a psychiatrist.

“There is a great support mechanism going around now but in the early days I don’t think they realised they needed one.”

The issue of suicide among Falklands veterans is a contentious one, with SAMA itself suggesting in 2002 the number of veterans who had taken their own lives was probably higher than the 255 who died during the war.

These figures are disputed by the Ministry of Defence, which has identified 95 deaths recorded as suicide or open verdicts and Mr Howe was keen to stress he was not drawing any firm conclusions.

He added: “Suicide can happen in the end, tragically.

“Although it’s not only the military – we’ve seen it in the aftermath of Grenfell for example so you can’t just single the military out.”

Nevertheless, the difficulties many veterans continue are indicative of an ongoing reluctance among men to talk about mental health, Mr Howe acknowledged.

He added: “I do see that with my shipmates. I get together with them several times a year.

“Very often I have big grown men in their 50s and 60s in tears and telling me something they’ve never mentioned before.

“Men sometimes do find it hard to open and say how they really feel.”

Nevertheless, Mr Howe said he had positive memories of his trip back the Falklands, the only time he has visited since the war.

He said: “I thought it was absolutely amazing – I am so glad I went.

“The landscape is rugged and windswept, although you don’t got a lot of snow, it’s wind and rain, the trees are all bent over in the prevailing wind.

“But the communities down there are so widespread, and the wildlife is amazing and all that made for an extremely interesting place.

“The farmer and his wife who hosted us, she was a little girl at the time of the war.

“She grew up, came to the UK as a police officer and now she’s back again.”

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