There are a worrying number of veterans within the criminal justice system. MoD statistics err on the conservative side, quoting 2,820 veterans in prison in 2009/2010, or around 3.5% of the prison population. In 2009, the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) put the figures higher: 8,500 veterans serving sentences in UK prisons, and a further 11,500 on probation or parole. Two out of three ex-soldiers imprisoned in the UK have committed sexual, violent or drug-related crimes, according to the MoD. The research into the relationship between ex-soldiers’ PTSD and crime is inconclusive and often contradictory: a Howard League for Penal Reform inquiry in 2011 concluded that there was no link.
“It suits the MoD to minimise the numbers in order to reduce the extent of liability,” says Tony Gauvain, a retired colonel, psychotherapist and chairman of the charity PTSD Resolution. “But given the numbers of people suffering symptoms now, and the latency of the condition likely to result in increasing numbers, there would seem to be a determination to avoid admitting there is a problem.”
The idea that PTSD can lead to violent crime is embarrassing for the MoD – and potentially costly. Those diagnosed with combat-related PTSD are entitled to a disablement pension, while victims of the crime could also potentially claim compensation. Between 2005 and March 2014, 1,390 claims were awarded under the Armed Forces and Reserve Forces Compensation Scheme for mental disorders (including PTSD) – but this figure could well spiral over the next few years as the army withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan. To put this into context, in America,20% of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with PTSD; in 2011, 476,514 veterans were treated for it.
Robert Kilgour scares his family, and he often scares himself. He has been imprisoned three times for violent offences. On the last occasion, he almost killed a man – his victim required 100 stitches after Kilgour attacked him with a bottle. We meet at his flat in Edgware, north London. On a table is a photograph of his former wife and his family. Kilgour is tense, on edge. He served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the Gulf war, and returned to civilian life in 1993. But everything was different. “I just couldn’t keep it under control. I don’t want nobody to be close to me. I don’t want them to see what I’m going through. I’m 43, and every time I think about what I’ve gone through, it brings it back. It’s still raw. I’ve seen some of the best people you’ll ever meet in life put in the ground, and I’ve put people in the ground. It’s changed me.”
Kilgour says some members of his family disown own him – they tell people he’s dead. In a way, Kilgour says, they are right – he is dead, or at least the young boy who dreamed of being a boxer is dead. He doesn’t act, or react, like a rational man. He frequently gets into fights. “I don’t like no one. I don’t even like myself. I’m disgusted with some of the things I’ve done. You take someone’s life away, no matter if he’s going to kill you, and you don’t ever get over it.”
He talks about his nightmares; the screaming, the shaking, the sweating. What does he dream about? “That’s a bit personal, as it happens.” Silence. “No, I’m not going to shy away from nothing. Listen, if this helps anyone…” He stops again. “Mate, if I drop a tear and you laugh at me, I’m going to smack you straight in your fucking face, I swear.
“My best mate Rob was from Norfolk, and we were in Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland. I was the lead in a four-man team, and my mate got shot in front of me. He was ripped apart. He looked like a lump of meat. I didn’t even know who it was. I just looked down and carried on firing. That’s my recurring dream. I was going to be his best man. He was supposed to be married the following week. I had to go up to Norfolk to see his missus. She said, ‘You said you’d look after him.’ And she slapped me round the face.” He laughs, but a strangled sound comes out. “I was crying my eyes out, and she wouldn’t even let me in the door.” Does he ever wish he had been the one killed? “So many times.”
Bluebell, his jack russell, starts barking. He jumps. “I’m very on point all the time. Anything that happens, the slightest noise, I’m like that. I’ve got a couple of friends going through this, and they’re doing lithium. They can’t look straight at me – they’re dribbling wrecks.”
Rob was killed 20 years ago, but Kilgour didn’t begin to process his death until he started getting arrested repeatedly for violent assault. He says it was only when he was in prison that he found out what was wrong with him. “It took a prison officer, an ex-army bod, to come to my cell and say, ‘I know you’re suffering.’ Before that, I just thought it was me. I’m still having counselling eight years on.”
After his release, he received counselling from PTSD Resolution. Kilgour blames the army for failing to prepare him for life on the outside. “That’s why so many of my colleagues go to prison. It’s all due to violence. None of them can keep a relationship”.