Conflict “has the potential to wrestle morality” from soldiers, a senior officer has said, as the army expands mental health resilience training to prevent ‘moral injury’.
Brigadier Paul Tedman, Deputy Commander of the MoD’s Joint Helicopter Command, said the army was working hard to bring moral training “to a really fine edge”.
“The challenges of preparing people for combat both physically and morally [are] intertwined,” he told the Telegraph.
The army has expanded its programme to optimise performance on the battlefield.
Operation SMART (Stress Management And Resilience Training), a through-career programme for mental fitness, starts in basic training.
The programme has different modules for different stages in a soldier’s career and uses mental resilience techniques taken from elite sport psychology.
Soldiers at all ranks are taught how to recognise the signs of poor mental health in themselves and others. Lessons on suicide prevention are drawn from a programme jointly designed with the Samaritans.
Brig Tedman said: “We have conversations about the ethical dimension all through training.
“Conflict has the potential to wrestle morality from the abstract and political into reality for pilots and it’s really important that we understand that from training through to combat and the aftercare required to deal with it.
“Apache is an offensive platform and is deliberately putting fire down to do harm to people.
“Soldiers are intelligent, tough and inquisitive. It’s not just about the ‘what’, these days we have to be able to explain the ‘why’ too.”
Will (not his real name), a former Commanding Officer of an Apache Attack Helicopter Regiment said many in Defence would welcome mental health resilience training.
“It definitely wasn’t there when I was in the middle of it,” he said.
“When I went to Libya [in 2011] I was killing hundreds of people every day. And there’s no processing for that, it was lacking.
“Some really big personalities were putting their hands up and saying ‘I’m full. I need a bit of help with this’. It wasn’t PTSD, it was just people needing to process stuff.
“We as a corporation hadn’t equipped people with the ability to process things.”
The Army’s Senior Health Adviser says Operation SMART is part of the duty of care the MoD has to “ensure people are properly prepared, both physically and mentally, for the arduous tasks that we place on them”.
Brigadier Tim Hodgetts, who says his own mental health resilience was boosted through his experience of being caught in an IRA explosion in 1991that killed two soldiers, believes the army’s programme allows people to have “difficult conversations”.
He says the army is now keeping pace with society regarding mental health awareness, thanks partly to celebrities and the Royal Family speaking out on such issues.
Colonel Tim Boughton, the strategic adviser to the army on mental health, says his background in neuroscience and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy helps him explore these issues with those in positions of command.
So far around 800 senior officers in the army have attended the sessions.
“Senior leadership can be a lonely place,” he says.
“Self awareness leads to influence and then to control. It’s key because a lot of the senior officers haven’t got the self awareness to know what it is that’s going wrong or the issues that they’re having.
“When they do, they have the influence to be able to do something about it.”
Colonel Boughton says moral injury refers to the harm an individual suffers after an act of perceived moral transgression. He says it can produce profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases lead to a sense of betrayal, anger and moral disorientation.
“When you look at the stress container of life, we’re effectively giving [soldiers] a tap on the side that they can turn on to allow those issues to calm down.”
He says it was only when the intervention of his wife that eventually led him to seek help for PTSD.
“We are still in an area where men are less likely to talk about mental health issues than women.
He worked with the Samaritans to establish a system whereby a veteran or serving soldier can identify as such to be connected to someone with a military background after calling 116123.
“If you think something is wrong, just talk about it,” he says.
“If you feel that you’re not sleeping well, and you’re being argumentative, start a conversation.
“You won’t be judged, you can just check in.”