First Ambush: New Report Evidences Detrimental Health Consequences of UK Military’s Practice of Child Recruitment

Feryal Awan & Adrienne Milner, Queen Mary University of London

Long-standing allegations that Sean Benton, a young soldier, found dead at the notorious Deepcut army base, had suffered prolonged physical and psychological bullying will finally be investigated – twenty-two years after his untimely death.

Benton, from Hastings, East Sussex was found with five bullets in his chest shortly after he had been told he was to be discharged from the army. Between 1995 and 2002, three other young soldiers, two of whom were minors (as defined by the UN CRC), were found dead. 18 year old Cheryl James, 17 year old Geoff Gray, and 17 year old James Collinson all died from gunshot wounds. Parents were told that their children had committed suicide, and ensuing inquests similarly recorded suicide as cause of death for all four.

Fresh inquiry into the death of Sean Benton will examine his experiences at Deepcut, to analyse foul play and whether “bullying and harassment” led to his premature death. Scheduled for later this year, the inquiry is bound to shed light on systemic problems in the armed forces’recruitment and training practices.

During the investigation, judges will find useful a ground-breaking report, entitled The First Ambush? Effect of army training and employment  released last week (4 July 2017) by Veterans for Peace UK. This report authored by researcher David Gee, draws on veterans’ testimony and over 200 academic studies to explore the impact of army employment on enlisted recruits.

In The First Ambush?, Gee first describes the UK’s unusually heavy reliance on recruiting minors, and particularly, the recruitment of youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. By comparison, although the U.S. army disproportionately also targets high-deprivation communities, the U.S. military does not recruit 16 year olds, and only 3% of U.S. recruits are 17. In fact, at enlistment, British recruits are more likely to be 16 than any other age. Gee also highlights that not only are the youngest U.K. recruits typically socioeconomically disadvantaged, they are also solicited to serve in under-skilled positions, including direct combat roles. Furthermore, Gee discusses how the British army accomplishes child recruitment through promotion of a romanticised notion of army life as adventurous, heroic, and lucrative. Once enrolled, however, young recruits are exposed in their training to a culture vastly different to their expectations, characterised by a coercive process that suppresses individuality and conditions previously healthy persons to kill.

Not only does Gee explain in detail the strategy of indoctrination into army culture during training, he also illuminates another disparity in the British army that arises after initial recruitment – that the youngest and poorest soldiers are ‘first in, first out.’ Roughly 30% of British infantry recruits leave during their first 3 months[1] with attrition rates nearly 50% higher for minors than adults. Although dominant military discourse suggests that the youngest and most disadvantaged are positioned to gain the most from training, Gee evidences that poverty is a direct correlate of the behaviours most associated with dropping out of training.

Gee also clearly articulates the disconnect between the dominant narrative promoting the benefit of military service and the lived experienced of soldiers who complete training. Specifically, Gee argues that enlistment tends to disrupt the personal and socioeconomic development of young people, jeopardises their health and wellbeing, and exacerbates prior antisocial behaviour. The report cleverly unpacks the assumption that military training and employment has a positive impact on young enlistees. The author uses evidence-based research to refute the common assumption that the routine and discipline of military life aids maturity, self-discipline and general character development of enlistees. The idea that military training reduces violent behaviour and substance abuse of young people from deprived backgrounds is also found to be baseless. Using empirical evidence, the author explains that the opposite is in fact true, as military training and a culture of bullying juxtaposed with pre-existing antisocial behavioural problems indeed exacerbate the risk of this behaviour.

A Medact report entitled The Recruitment of Children by the UK Armed Forces: A critique from Health Professionals, published in 2016, explained that child recruits are vulnerable to PTSD, alcohol abuse, self-harm and suicide. As the health risks with an armed forces career are considerably greater for those recruited under the age of 18, than those recruited as adults, the report recommended raising the minimum recruitment age to 18. We would like to use this opportunity to renew our call to the health community to speak out against the practice of recruiting child soldiers.

Substance abuse and mental health issues often persist, and veterans have a lower quality of health as compared to their civilian counterparts in later life. Moreover, the Gee’s report points to the importance of examining civilian and military public health through a common lens by including concerns and a discussion on the disadvantages veterans and their families experience because of service life. For example, veterans suffering from PTSD are at higher risk of committing acts of physical violence against their family members. Assuring the health and well-being of both civilian and military populations shares a common purpose, and wider awareness of the public health concerns of military life is necessary.  In addition, a significant shift away from the romanticisation of the armed forces, and the false assumption that service is beneficial for children, must be abandoned in favour of the results from empirical research that Gee has synthesised.

[1] Kiernan, M. D., Repper, J., & Arthur, A. (2015). ‘Why do they fail? A qualitative follow up study of 1000 recruits to the British army infantry to understand high levels of attrition’. Work: A journal of prevention, assessment and rehabilitation, 52(4), 921-934.

In response to the report, Medact, once again renews its call for an end to the recruitment of children by the UK armed forces.

Please contact Feryal Awan if you are interesting in hearing more about the Medact child recruitment campaign.