Half of the Army’s bomb disposal experts are feared to be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
The stark revelation comes in a report sent to MPs as part of a probe into mental illness within the armed forces and veterans.
The Army has around 350 bomb disposal experts and most have seen action in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The small force is comprised of some of the most highly-trained and decorated soldiers in the Army.
But the report seen by the Sunday People – which has campaigned for better treatment of sufferers – says the number with PTSD could be “significantly” higher than the Ministry of Defence believes.
Up to 200 serving and former Ammunition Technical Officers took part in an anonymous survey which indicated half had symptoms of PTSD – from mild to severe.
ATOs are key to national security and are often first on the scene of a terror attack.
In Afghanistan and Iraq they defused thousands of IEDs.
And they were often forced to enter minefields to clear paths so that dead or wounded troops could be extracted. The soldiers also had to search dead colleagues to remove ammunition and hand grenades before a postmortem.
The PTSD study was conducted by the Felix-Health organisation.
The report says members of the bomb disposal force may be “more susceptible because of the repetitive exposure to traumatic situations”. It also said treatment and support given to soldiers, veterans and families was often poor.
The report cited one former Lieutenant Colonel who was diagnosed with PTSD and became suicidal. But his GP told him he would have to wait six weeks for an assessment by a psychiatrist.
One former ATO who took part in the study said: “There are bomb disposal operators in the Army today who have PTSD but they are worried that they might lose their careers if they ask for help.
“That means individuals with a mental illness are in the front line in a potential terrorist attack against this country.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We take the mental wellbeing of our serving and former personnel extremely seriously, and we urge anyone struggling to come forward and access the care they deserve.
“The MoD has increased spending on mental health and has set up a 24/7 mental health helpline for serving personnel so there is always somewhere to turn in times of crisis.
"Veterans can access specialist medical care from the NHS and find a wide range of service charities through the Veterans’ Gateway – the first port of call for veterans in need of support.”
Haunted hero’s anger
Hero Major Wayne Owers defused 93 bombs in Afghanistan in 2009 and out of an 11-strong team was the only one to return unharmed.
But the mental trauma and nightmares inflicted by what he saw ultimately cost him his career.
Wayne, 48, was diagnosed with PTSD and discharged from the Army in 2016. The veteran, whose wife Sukie is a headteacher, said: “The Army was my life but in my darkest hour when I most needed help I was told, ‘You are no longer fit to serve’.
“It was a devastating blow. The doctors treating me said that I was making progress. I could have continued serving.”
While in the grip of his illness Major Owers did a second tour in Afghanistan, ran the Defence Terrorist Bomb Disposal Training School and commanded more than 120 specialists.
He continued: “The reality is that if I had kept my mouth shut I would still be serving – with promotion a realistic prospect.
“What message does that send to soldiers who think they might have PTSD? If you ask for help you’ll be thrown out of the Army.
“I know soldiers who have said they are better when they’re not because they don’t want to lose their careers.”
Major Owers lost close friends in Afghanistan and described the workload there as “horrendous”, with six disposal teams tackling bombs several times a day.
He added: “The treatment my wife received was disgusting. There was no support, no help – and that is a clear breach of the Military Covenant.
“I was sent home, given a prescription for very strong anti-depressants and almost forgotten. I had been a soldier for 27 years.
“It was my life and suddenly it was gone.”
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