I was extremely privileged in having an opportunity to talk with a very pleasant and kind mother last week about her son Aaron and his transition from soldier to civi.
We’ve heard of a variety of veteran’s transition stories in the past six months here on ‘Soldier to Civi’ but we have yet to hear about the soldier’s return to civilian life from a mother’s perspective.
June Black was kind enough to share with us a story of her son’s transition.
Aaron deployed to Afghanistan on Op Herrick 10 in 2009 with the Black Watch (3rd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland) at the young age of twenty, shortly after passing out from Catterick in the summer of 2008. He had previously passed out from training with the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) but he then decided to join the Infantry.
When Did Aaron return home from Afghanistan?
“The homecoming parades were in December 2009 and I went to the parade in Perthshire. I heard Lt Col Cartwright speak about how proud he was of the young Jocks”
Aaron was involved in an extremely horrific incident whilst operating on Op Herrick 10, did you notice any signs of Aaron struggling with mental health difficulties on his return?
“Not really, although he was very emotional and choked up talking about Pte McLaren. He went to ‘T in the Park’ with his older sister and when looking at one of his photos taken there, I noticed that his face looked different, troubled. His Sister believes he was just a bit drunk when I mentioned that to her after Aaron died”
“He came home on R&R (Rest & Relaxation) in July and he told me about the young Pte being killed in ‘The Grape-hut Explosion’, yet, he said he would only talk about it the once”.
“Aaron and another Soldier offered to run over to the ‘Grape-hut’ that day under contact, both Robert and Mark Connelly were inside it. I was told that Aaron and James had a cigarette in the doorway before running back to the ditch and it was there that they saw the ‘Grape-hut’ explode. Mark crawled out that day but only to die in Germany. Whilst he was recuperating, another soldier punched him and he died. That incident was all over the press.”
How did Aaron cope on his return home after completing such a tough tour?
“He lived at home, however, I’d return from work to find him sleeping on the couch and I knew he had been drinking a lot, which was not that unusual for Aaron or the locals here. He would wake me up coming in at all hours, pinging the microwave. Again in hindsight, I realise he was depressed, stressed and he seemed to lack the motivation to do anything but drink. I didn’t know until after he had died in November 2012, what was really in his military medical records. He had been referred for Trauma-Focussed CBT
(Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy), and he only had one session before leaving the army.”
“In Scotland, sudden deaths get investigated by the Procurator Fiscal (PF), Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit. They have the power to call for Discretionary Fatal Accident Inquiry, they are rare and have to be in the public interest. So questions were put to the Ministry of Defence Inquest Unit. Aaron had his medical records in his house and the PF called for them and they were sent the same records as I. However, some entries were marked confidential, I asked what they could be and the PF said they would contact Medical Disclosure in Glasgow. Over the phone, she was told that they were probably dental records but luckily she asked for the confidential papers to be sent anyway. I also got a copy and it was in these documents that we read about the diagnosis and also tragically a suicide attempt whilst serving.”
“It was also noted that Aaron did not want a follow-up on his mental health but he wanted support for other things like getting a job and housing. Aaron’s unit in Inverness knew that he was depressed although he never blamed the tour till he opened up at a consultant psychiatrist level. I believe it was the stigma and the fact that he didn’t want anyone to know”
“Aaron missed his second session of CBT and the RAF nurse called him on his mobile around the 11th of May 2011, Aaron’s last day of service was to be the 17th of May. He told the nurse that he was at home and it was recorded in the nurse’s notes that Aaron said ‘he was a bit better, but would still like support on leaving the Blackwatch‘. The RAF nurse said he would refer him and the referral stated: ‘Aaron’s problems started after his Tour where he witnessed trauma… this is his mobile number, he is happy for you to make contact‘. The intended recipient never received that referral as they had no access to electronic records, therefore, Aaron was never followed up”
“The Crown Council in its infinite wisdom decided to not take to Public Fatal Accident Inquiry as the Sheriff would have nothing to recommend. The systemic failure in Aaron’s case being acknowledged and addressed, and the fact that Aaron did not want a mental health follow-up. The Council also mentioned Aaron survived seven months after leaving the army so he must have had other problems. His lack of follow-up or service could not be said to be a contributory factor in his suicide. I feel that they came at this from a legal stance and not from a mental health stance”.
“Why did Aaron lay out his medals on that particular night and why was his last contact with Pte Mark Connelly’s widow. He told her what he was going to do and she phoned the police but the police were too late.”
“I asked the Crown Office whether if Aaron had died two or three months after leaving the army, would that timescale have made a difference? Why were seven months considered to be too long?
I was told ‘case closed‘.”
“The MoD acknowledged a systemic failure for his lack of follow-up. The records were transferred electronically and the referral fell through the net and never reached the person who was asked to follow Aaron up in ‘civvy street’. A failure that the MoD said would never happen again”.
“The MoD have never apologised to me for Aaron’s lack of follow-up, even after admitting that it was the fault of a systemic failure”.
“I realise now in hindsight, how I could have helped him adjust to civilian life and what I could have done differently. One regret I have is helping get Aaron his own council house too soon but I never knew then what I know now. I live with regret“.
“I wish I had asked more questions and communicated with him more. I saw a twenty-two-year-old son who was a bit of a handful for me when I should have thought of him as my son who was also a combat veteran. I wish that I was aware of PTSD and I wish that I asked him more about his service. Of course, I should have been prepared for him to say, ‘no, what are you talking about’, I’m fine‘. In my case, I should have kept a mother’s eye on him and I should have kept him at home with me until I knew he had adjusted.”
I’d like to remind June and other parents out there that you as the parent did not sign up for the military, it was your offspring who made that conscious decision. Therefore, your knowledge and awareness of combat and what comes with it in the sense of mental health is minimal and that’s not your fault.
Do you feel that you and Aaron had sufficient support?
“We had pre and post deployment meetings at the Barracks in Perthshire and I attended those. All the parents and wives of the soldiers were given leaflets about what to look out for after their tour, except in my case, these leaflets were read and put away to the back of my mind. I didn’t think about that meeting until 2011.”
“Aaron sent a form to SSAFA HQ in London from a folder which he was given and I believe it was sent late in November 2011. SSAFA did reply although I received the letter after his death. I queried how long it took SSAFA to respond to Aaron’s form and again, this was a long story which followed between SSAFA London, The MP for Veterans at the time and myself. I achieved changes to be made in the way that these forms were turned around. I did more fighting for Aaron after he died than what I did for him when he was alive, it still torments me.”
Do you feel that you can see a positive change in the system now compared to 2011?
“I am certainly more aware of so many veteran support groups and of course the Veteran Transition Review took place. I had correspondence with David Cameron after Aaron died as well, I was writing to anybody and everybody about Aaron’s tragic death. He said to me that he had ‘asked his entire government to look at ways to support our brave Veterans like Aaron‘”
“I don’t understand the procedure for when a soldier leaves the armed forces now, at the time, it seemed that Aaron was responsible for himself and could have asked for help earlier. A bit of a brush off for a young lad who witnessed trauma at the age of twenty and who had been blown off his feet in a separate explosion”.
If you could give one piece of advice to other parents and loved ones of veterans, what would you say?
“Keep them at home perhaps or keep a close eye on them until your son or daughter has settled into civilian life” – June Black
Though there is still much to learn, the British public’s knowledge and understanding of the impacts of war on a veteran’s mental health have improved. There are much more resources and organisation which provide the relevant information and support compared to what was available in 2011.
In fact, only recently have the NHS launched a
‘Veteran’s Mental Health Transition, Intervention & Liaison Service’
I believe that we are taking steps in the right direction which is good and I certainly feel that Britain as a whole is starting to support our veterans more now. I believe that civilians have a better understanding of our veterans and what they have been through. I also feel that veterans are beginning to look after each other more and more these days. We’re certainly taking steps forward but it’s down to people like us to keep the momentum going.
Thank you for taking the time to read this week’s blog.
This was a tough topic of conversation, especially for June Black who I would like to personally thank for taking the time to share her story about her son Aaron.
Jamie and special guest, June Black
Rest in peace Aaron Black, it wasn’t for nothing.
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