The mother of an ex-soldier who died after suffering from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder says the army should have done more to help her son.
Linda Chamberlain watched her only son, Robert, change from a “fit and healthy” teenager who had always dreamed of joining the army into an alcoholic who, she said, drank to escape memories of the “atrocities” he had witnessed in Iraq.
Linda said her son was left to fend for himself when he was discharged on medical grounds in 2006. He eventually died from alcohol poisoning.
“The army washed their hands of him when he left. They did not give him any support at all,” she said.
Robert was 19 when he joined the Royal Regiment of Wales as an infantryman in 1997 and saw active service in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. But he was discharged nine years later due to an ongoing drink problem.
Linda said her son had lost three close friends during his time in Iraq and had witnessed one of them being shot at the same time the iconic statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.
Linda said: “It was an incredibly violent time. When he was sober, he was haunted by that memory. He would drink a litre of vodka just so he could sleep and not have to face the day.
“There always has been a culture of drinking in the army. You hear about the squaddies drinking all the time but, for Robert, it wasn’t just the odd can.”
Linda described how her son had struggled to adjust to civilian life after nearly a decade in the forces.
She said: “He was only a teenager when he joined and while he was in the army, everything was done for him. He didn’t have to worry about managing budgets or paying bills. When he came back to civvy street, he was thrown in at the deep end and expected to carry on with life, but he didn’t know how.”
During an inquest held at Cardiff Coroner’s Court on May 8, the court heard Robert had suffered from chronic depression, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety and drug abuse.
He had also been advised to seek help from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau regarding debt and bankruptcy.
Following a series of aggressive mood swings in 2007, Linda was forced to ask her son to move out of her home and he was helped by the British Legion to find and furnish a flat in Barry.
She said: “I found it increasingly difficult to cope with him. He was still drinking heavily and spending all his money on alcohol. He never talked about his problems. The British Legion helped him big time. They did wonders.”
Robert was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2010.
Linda said: “Post-traumatic stress disorder is a horrible thing. It destroys family life and friends. I was unable to get on with my own life because I was constantly worrying about his. He may have been 35, but he was still my child.”
In a statement read out at the inquest, specialist doctor of psychiatry Alison McLain recorded that Robert believed he had not experienced any mental health problems prior to army service.
In the summer of 2010, Robert married his wife, Michelle Chamberlain, but an indefinite restraining order was imposed when he was charged with assaulting her just three weeks after the wedding.
Following another incident at Michelle’s flat in December last year, he was arrested for breaching the order and was electronically tagged by Serco community monitoring.
On January 3, the tag on his left ankle showed he had not left his home for five days, triggering a monitoring visit. When visiting officers were unable to gain entry to his house or contact him by phone following repeated attempts, they alerted Barry Police, who found Robert at the far end of the hallway, showing “no signs of life”.
The former soldier was pronounced dead by a Welsh Ambulance paramedic.
In a statement made on January 16, Linda said: “The last time I saw him was on Boxing Day. He had been drinking and was asking me for money, but I knew exactly where it would go. I took him a cooked dinner. I did not see my son again.”
Dr Meleri Morgan, who carried out the post-mortem, confirmed the cause of death as alcohol poisoning, aggravated by obesity and respiratory problems.
Recording a verdict of death by dependence on alcohol, Cardiff coroner Mary Hassell said: “It seems to me that all the evidence points in the same direction. In the end, the alcohol got the better of him.”
The Ministry of Defence said it was unable to comment on the specific case, but a spokesman said the government had committed to spending £7.2m on improving mental health services.
He said: “We can be clear that the mental health of our service personnel and veterans is a top priority. We have robust systems in place, at home and on operations, to help those that need support and we are committed to reducing the stigma of mental illness to encourage more personnel to come forward with any problems.”
He added: “Thousands leave the armed forces every year and the vast majority make a successful transition to civilian life. But for those that have difficulty making the adjustment there is still a wide range of help and support available.”
Combat Stress works with veterans of the British armed forces to provide support for mental health problems.
The charity is currently treating 403 veterans in Wales and has seen an average increase in referrals of 10% year on year since 2005.
According to charity spokesman Stephen Clark, of the 20,000 people leaving the armed forces every year, the majority successfully adapt to civilian life.
But a significant minority can face difficulties, with 4% predicted to develop post traumatic stress disorder and nearly 20% expected to develop a common mental health condition.
He said: “There is a real need for greater awareness of both the challenges veterans face and the support they may need.
“More and more ex-service men and women are recognising the importance of seeking help and not suffering in silence.”
The charity operates a UK-wide community outreach service that visits veterans in their own homes, as well as a 24-hour helpline on 0800 138 1619.