During Jesper Mailand’s first deployment to the Balkans on a UN peacekeeping mission in 1995, he found himself in the midst of battle.
“It was full-out war 500 meters from our camp. Snipers, mortar attacks, all that shit. We felt the blasts when they struck close enough and heard the whistling of grenade shrapnel. Just weeks before we left, two grenades struck our camp and destroyed 96 percent of our vehicles.”
Mailand returned from his tour in the Balkans with a growing sense of psychological distress. He decided to reach out for help, but was put off by suggestions from his superiors that doing so might make him a worse soldier.
“The debrief we got back then was pretty straightforward. The military psychologist would ask 175 men in the auditorium of the Farum Garrison if anyone was feeling bad. When no one came forward, the psychologist pointed us in the direction of a phone number that hung in the hallway.”
He eventually volunteered to do two more tours abroad in rapid succession. He was committed to his occupation as a soldier and worked hard. Over the course of two years he only took three weeks of holiday, and was otherwise in a state of constant preparedness.
Psychological duress started to grow within him, however, but he continued to perform his duties, leaving his colleagues none the wiser about what was going on inside. But when the psychological pressure spilled over, he finally reached out for psychological help.
“Honestly, I sobbed through half an hour with a psychologist on the phone. I realised I was sick and within a week I was overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. For 11 months I couldn’t go to work,” he said, describing the anxiety as paralysing.
“These fears are to do with my mind wanting to have complete control of a situation. When I am out somewhere it sends my brain into a kind of uncontrollable overdrive. When it happens I leave the area to regain my composure.”
Many at risk
Mailand is one of around 55,000 Danish soldiers to have been sent to conflict zones since the end of World War II. Of around 20,000 soldiers who were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, 43 died and around 500 were injured.
But many more returned with psychological injuries, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One Military study examined the mental well being of 749 soldiers who were stationed in Afghanistan between February and August 2009. It found that 22 percent would ultimately suffer some degree of PTSD. Around six percent appeared healthy on their return to Denmark, but slowly deteriorated after seventh months. And around ten percent still suffered symptoms of PTSD two-and-a-half years later.
The government recognises the need to help veterans and in September increased its annual spending on veterans by 20 million kroner, to 200 million kroner a year.
Several new initiatives were also announced, including more local health and social centers for veterans, a 50,000 kroner grant to employers for each veteran they hire, easier entry to education, and improved PTSD treatment.
“[Veterans] perform an enormous service for the Kingdom of Denmark and we should do everything we can to support and help those in need,” defence minister Peter Christensen told Jyllands-Posten newspaper.
The Veteran Alliance
Veteran support group the Veterans Alliance (Veteranalliancen) support some elements of the government’s proposals, such as new health and social centres that make it easier for veterans to seek support from social workers and psychologists.
But spokesperson Claus Stenberg warns that the most vulnerable veterans are still at risk.
“We had hoped for the establishment of an outreach-unit similar to the mobile psychiatric nurse service, but explicitly for veterans. And then there is the big issue of compensation for psychological trauma such as PTSD being recognised on par with physical injuries. Sometimes soldiers fight for 10 or 15 years to claim compensation for their psychological injuries.”
Veterans have only been possible to claim compensation for mental health issues resulting from their work since 2013. Parliament expected that it would cost around 500 million kroner in compensation claims, but according to Ugebrevet A4, around 1.3 billion kroner has already been paid to veterans suffering from PTSD.
Despite this progress, Veteranalliance argues that mental health injuries are not considered as severe as physical injuries. As a result, compensation for PTSD tends to be lower than for physical injuries.
Even worse, they argue, are veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD, but who have had their claims for compensation turned down by the Labour Market Insurance (Arbejdsmarkedets Erhvervssikring), the government agency responsible for assessing compensation claims for work-related injuries. One veteran, for example, was denied compensation because they were “not exceptionally threatened or under catastrophic pressure” during their time as a soldier.
According to Ugebrevet A4, Arbejdsmarkedets Erhvervssikring dismissed 30 percent of PTSD compensation claims.
While soldiers suffering from PTSD are helped by the financial windfall that compensation brings, the money also serves as a recognition of the dangerous work they have done.
But even soldiers who return home physically and mentally fit want the government to recognise their work.
“I have served with many brave soldiers over the years who were deserving of recognition for their extraordinary service,” says Lars Madsen, a veteran of five deployments in Afghanistan.
Madsen currently serves as the chief of human resources in the European Union Police Mission Afghanistan (EUPOL), which trains the Afghan police force. He was one of the principal advocates for the establishment of Forsvarets Medalje for International Tjeneste (The Military Medal for International Service) in 2015, that is awarded to civilian and military personnel who participated in international missions between 1948 and 2009.
“As a leader and an officer I felt the official recognition insufficient,” he says. “To be able to take that medal out now and again, and wear it knowing that you made a difference means a lot.”
Madsen said he knew the focus on medals could divert attention and resources from important areas such as PTSD. And he is worried about the high suicide rate among veterans. He abhors the “bureaucratic nightmare” many soldiers encounter when seeking help, describing it as a second war on the homefront.
“Ideally, the funds for their treatments should be allocated as part of the budget for deploying them in the first place,” he said.
One and a half victories
In September, Veteranalliancen held a demonstration outside Arbejdsmarkedets Erhvervssikring to draw attention to issues related to awarding compensation to veterans. One woman held a sign stating: “1998->2016 = 18 years. How much longer? When will you learn to take responsibility?”
But despite their grievances with the system, Claus Stenberg acknowledges that the government’s new initiatives are, in part, inspired by Veteranalliance’s campaigning.
“The first victory is that highly-specialised PTSD treatment will be available in all regions. The half-victory is the way veterans will be handled by municipal authorities. Municipal staff will be better equipped to make a holistic assessment of the often complex set of problems veterans encounter upon return to a normal life on the home front.” M
FACTS: More help for veterans
- Spending on veterans to increase by 20 million kroner to 200 million kroner a year.
- Employers can claim 50,000 kroner for each veteran they employ for at least six months.
- More regional veteran centres for treating severe trauma to be established across the country.
- GPs given extra training on how to diagnose and treat mental health issues.
- More offers of sport and physical activity.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.
- Someone with PTSD may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
- Symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the persons day-to-day life.
- PTSD can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event or it can occur weeks, months or even years later.
- Source: (nhs.uk, SFI-rapport “Danske hjemvendte soldater” fra 2009).
HOW TO GET HELP
- Specialist PTSD treatment is ascribed through contacting your GP.
- For acute help with negative thoughts or anxiety call:
- Sct Nicolaj Tjenesten: 7012 0110 ( 9-03, sun 13-03)
- Angsttelefonen: 7027 9294 (mon-thu 19-22, sun 16-19)
- The official Veteran Center hotline for soldiers, veterans and relatives is open 24 hours: 7281 9700