Any commemoration demands careful reflection upon an event’s impacts and legacies. One marking a 40th anniversary requires a particular focus.
Many, if not most of us, in this chamber will have some recollection of the Falklands conflict and I’m grateful to those colleagues who supported the motion and are contributing this evening.
But a recent survey by Help for Heroes found that almost half of 18-34-year olds did not know when the Falklands War happened, indeed over a quarter of them had not even heard of it.
Whilst based upon the age profile that is perhaps not surprising, it is important we do not allow that conflict to join the Korean War in being felt by many of those who served in it as a “forgotten war”.
Veterans and their sacrifice cannot be forgotten. It is crucial that we remember both those who lost their lives and those who were left mentally and physically scarred by events 40 years ago.
When we reflect on past conflicts it can be easy to get caught up in dates, overall narratives, and accounts of decision-making of political leaders.
One of my abiding personal memories, as a young journalist at the time, was of an infamous tabloid newspaper front page reporting the sinking of the Belgrano.
And that very much returned to the forefront of my mind when watching a recent documentary on the war – hearing a British naval veteran speak of his own mixed emotions on hearing of that event.
Euphoria over a significant “win” for his side in the conflict immediately tempered by recognition that many fellow mariners had perished.
It is essential in reflecting upon what unfolded in the South Atlantic we focus on those individual stories and sacrifices on the front line.
The first front line, in the Falklands, consisted of 32 local Defence Force volunteers and the Navy personnel there at the point of invasion, none of whom had gone there expecting to see action.
At just 67 men, the marine contingent – known as the Naval Party 8901 – showed a bravery and resistance that went unrecognised for too long.
In a recent documentary, Major Mike Norman who led these men in a vastly under-resourced defence against an 800-strong landing party described how certain of death he was.
Many tabloid headlines at the time painted Norman and his men as cowards; their efforts, now acknowledged, however, quash any such claim.
During the several hours of fighting, around 6,500 rounds of ammunition were discharged, casualties were inflicted, and arms were eventually laid down only on the orders of the British Governor.
After being sent home, most of the marines immediately volunteered to head back and ended up as part of the forces who recaptured the islands.
45 Commando – based out of Arbroath in my constituency – played a significant role in the Falklands, being among the very first troops to depart – Cabinet Secretary, Keith Brown, among them.
45 were to become known as ‘The Yompers’ due to the extreme miles they had to march (yomp) in grim conditions on those small islands 8,000 miles from home.
A 110-mile route of constant diversions and detours, during the whole of which everything they had was carried on their backs.
James Kelly, a young second lieutenant talked of 44 days without fresh water, without a change of clothing, freezing cold, soaking wet, with wind chill temperatures well below zero.
The marines saw ships being hit and sunk and friends and colleagues injured it must have been unimaginably hard on all involved.
But there were to be tough, heart-breaking experiences of those back home too. Theresa Davidson was just 25 when she lost her husband, Clark Mitchell of the Scots Guards, on the final day of the Falklands conflict. He was one of eight Scots Guards to lose their lives that day.
All of this a reminder Presiding Officer that there is nothing, nothing, glorious about war!
But apart from the liberation of the islands and the sending of a clear message that the right to self determination is to be cherished and protected – The Falklands War proved important in another way – re-evaluating previous perceptions of trauma.
It was to become recognised that even the effects of a ‘short-term’ war had the power to linger for much longer than desired.
The unpredictable nature of trauma can be brought on by grief, survivors’ guilt, or simply the inability to cope with the reality of life after war.
As a result, too many Falklands veterans have been led onto paths of alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, family breakdown and crime.
When you reading the stories of Falklands veterans, the main take away is that for most, not a day goes by without a memory or thought of the conflict.
Individual decisions made during the war can still play on their minds, with the only solution being to live with them and their consequences, good or bad.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) wasn’t recognised until 1987. Before then, it was known – during the Second World War – as ‘shellshock’. during the Great War, it was viewed as cowardice.
There remains progress to be made. For many who services there lies a fear that by disclosing a suspected mental health issue they are disclosing a weakness that may affect their future careers.
That is why I wish to express my continued appreciation for the military charities and associations who provide the necessary support and friendship needed to manage the powerful emotions experienced daily by our veterans.
For many Falklands servicemen, the effects of PTSD have taken years, sometimes decades to manifest.
Before PTSD received its recognition, veterans were shunned and unsupported to the point where the act of seeking help seemed out of the question.
Take the example of the youngest Scot deployed in the Falklands, David Cruickshanks, aged 17 – for whom joining the Navy was a dream come true.
It was not until 1999, seventeen years after the Falklands war, that his struggle with PTSD and depression was picked up by a doctor in an unrelated consultation.
Only then did he start to speak about his personal struggles.
Presiding Officer, last November, I was fortunate to re-visit RM Condor’s Woodlands Garden of Remembrance, a poignant memorial to the men who have lost their lives in various conflicts including the Falklands.
The Garden’s tranquil environment offers a focal point for the men of 45 Commando and their relatives to reflect and remember. You cannot visit it and fail to be moved.
Though it is a matter of record that 255 British servicemen lost their lives in the Falklands as well as – lest we forget – 649 Argentinians….. according to Royal British Legion figures, approximately 350 British Falklands veterans have taken their own lives since the conflict.
Whilst it can be said that in the subsequent decades since the Falklands War there has been more cultural awareness to the seriousness of PTSD, it is still an issue many struggle with.
The expectation during the Falklands conflict was to “get on with it and deal with it yourself” – whatever “it” may be.
There can no longer be a stigma around asking for help, an act so simple yet, in some cases, life changing.
To conclude my contribution to this debate I want to quote Ian Gardener – then commander of x-ray company, 45 Commando – as he reflected on the war…
“We are all of us changed men. For many, it was the pivotal event in their lives. The time before was innocence, while afterwards was a particular form of adulthood that not many ever see.”
In recognition of those words, this anniversary must serve as a reminder of the need, our collective responsibility, to support those of our veterans whose service exacted a toll.
Because they bear their physical and mental wounds every day, not just during anniversaries of the conflicts in which they saw action.