Press Releases

PRESS RELEASE : Functional fitness should be at the heart of a veteran’s recovery [May 2023]

The press release issued by the Cabinet Office on 16 May 2023.

An op-ed from Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer, originally published in the Times Red Box.

Monday marked the start of Mental Health Awareness Week. For me, the week is always a reminder of how the mental aspects of warfare can often be as powerful as the physical.

Early on in my third tour of Afghanistan in summer 2010, I made a close friend. He was a good bloke — intelligent, thoughtful and a good soldier. He was brave, didn’t flinch under fire.

On a patrol, he was shot in the side. Though the round pinged off his new body armour plate, something in his head snapped. He had to be extracted as a casualty, despite having no physical injury; he just could not compute what had happened to him.

It was perhaps the worst case of battle shock I had seen in a British soldier up to that point. It was devastating to see a man so strong, yet so completely broken by battle. It had a profound effect on me. It demonstrated to me the vicious and unpredictable effects of trauma on the mind.

A few years later, I bumped into a soldier I’d trained with back in 2007. He had completely transformed himself from a problem character into an exemplar soldier. He made a point of telling me how important those early days in training had been: how they had taught him humility, courage, discipline and resilience.

Seeing him reminded me how rewarding it had been to help him and many others like him make something of themselves. I started to think about where I might be able to make a difference in the future.

Heading home from Afghanistan, I felt that tokenism dominated almost every approach to veterans’ care and mental health. When it came to post-combat care specifically, I strongly believed that the government had singularly failed our service men and women.

I wanted to end the unacceptable stigma and lack of genuine commitment to mental health. My mind was made up. I was going to leave the Army and become an MP. As the minister for veterans’ affairs, I’ve made it my mission to improve the plight of veterans and their families. And with that comes improving access to health services.

One real service innovation has been to take a multidisciplinary approach: addressing not just physical health needs, but the wider health and social needs of the veteran so they can heal, recover and thrive.

Op Courage was the pioneer: a single clear defined pathway for veterans in England to access world-class mental health care. The Veterans Trauma Network, another dedicated NHS service for veterans, is also helping to standardise physical health support. It is the services charity sector that is complementing these services with excellent wraparound support.

Being active can make a world of difference. The Veteran Games, taking place later this month in Tel Aviv, will host over 60 wounded British veterans together with their spouses and children. They will compete with their Israeli counterparts across swimming, shooting and functional fitness. Now in its third year, the Games was set up by the charity Beit Halochem UK, which supports state-of-the-art centres for injured veterans in Israel, and is entirely run from philanthropic donations.

Competing veterans have been selected by charities based on how much they will benefit from the opportunity, rather than for their sporting prowess. It is the taking part that counts, and everything that comes with it. This includes building shared, long-term bonds with their fellow UK and Israeli competitors.

I am inspired by the veterans who are challenging themselves, and encouraging others to do the same. I will be cheering for them later this month — not only to grab those medals, but to continue on their personal journeys to recovery.