An Army general tipped to assume command of Britain’s Armed Forces has revealed how his battlefield experiences in Iraq left him suicidal and drinking alone at two o’clock in the morning.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, 54, who could become the next Chief of the Defence Staff, made the shocking admission in a bid to persuade soldiers to seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.
He is thought to be the most senior officer ever to talk so openly about their mental health issues. His remarkable intervention comes as numbers of troops committing suicide are reported to have doubled in the last ten years.
General Sanders led thousands of soldiers in southern Iraq in 2007. In that year, 47 were killed and 202 were wounded as insurgents laid siege to British bases. Many of the deceased were from his own infantry regiment, the Rifles. In a harrowing interview released by the Army he said: ‘I was depressed, I was low, I wasn’t myself and there were periods of time when I had suicidal thoughts, on the back of a very violent tour.
General Sir Patrick Sanders, 54, (pictured) who could become the next Chief of the Defence Staff, has revealed how his battlefield experiences in Iraq left him suicidal and drinking alone at two o’clock in the morning
‘I found myself obsessing about experiences, dwelling on photographs, video clips, letters, replaying in my mind what happened in a dark and obsessive way. I closed down, these were conversations that were going on in my head, not with other people.
‘These thoughts took me to a dark place, so I’d find opportunities to be on my own. I would sit up late at night drinking. And it was when I caught myself at two in the morning with a bottle of wine or whisky next to me I realised that I needed help.’
Numbers of those seeking help for mental and emotional issues stemming from their operational service rose significantly in the aftermath of the UK’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, one in eight armed forces personnel approached doctors for help.
Campaigners say suicides among military personnel and veterans have increased almost every year since 2011 even though the Armed Forces have been cut by almost 40,000 since then.
The support group Veterans United Against Suicide also calculated that in 2020, 17 members of the military and 67 veterans took their own lives. Some hung themselves, others used firearms. In messages left for families they claimed nobody in the military was taking their issues seriously.
He is thought to be the most senior officer ever to talk so openly about their mental health issues. His remarkable intervention comes as numbers of troops committing suicide are reported to have doubled in the last ten years
In one case SAS medic Staff Sergeant Jamie Ferguson, 36, who shot himself in June 2020, made a recording just before his death in which he said: ‘I asked for help but no one was listening, they didn’t understand.’
In an attempt to prevent suicides the Ministry of Defence introduced a 24-hour hotline and from April 2021 all forces personnel must have mental health training to recognise symptoms in themselves and colleagues.
When General Sanders finally sought help he found friends were hugely understanding.
‘They were sympathetic, they didn’t judge me, they still respected me professionally, and suddenly that was like a lifeline,’ he said. ‘That gives you the confidence to begin to lift up your eyes.
‘So I wanted to use my experience to help others work out that it is perfectly normal, it doesn’t matter what the trigger is, whether it is the sort of violence I went through on operations but equally [it can] be something in your personal life and often it is the combination of things.
General Sanders, (pictured, second from right) who is currently Commander of Strategic Command and has also served in Helmand in Afghanistan and Bosnia, is considered the favourite on a shortlist of four senior officers vying to replace General Sir Nick Carter as Chief of the Defence Staff
‘So it is about normal conversations with people, it is about getting the basics right. Make sure you sleep properly, your diet is healthy and you’ve got a really good fitness regime.
‘It fundamentally changes your outlook. I began to have things to look forward to again. I think it so important to look to the next ridgeline, that keeps your momentum going.’
General Sanders’ admission was praised last night by former head of the Army, Lord Dannatt who said: ‘It is so important that a senior officer has the moral courage to stand up and say that these things affect commanders as well as those in the ranks. This will be a huge encouragement to others.’
General Sanders, who is currently Commander of Strategic Command and has also served in Helmand in Afghanistan and Bosnia, is considered the favourite on a shortlist of four senior officers vying to replace General Sir Nick Carter as Chief of the Defence Staff. A decision is expected in the next month.
Last night the MoD said: ‘There is a wealth of mental health support available across defence and we encourage anyone struggling to come forward and access the help they deserve.’