The government risked the mental health of thousands of troops by breaching strict guidelines designed to protect military personnel from excessive deployment and overstretch, the Chilcot report reveals.

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Key figures scrutinised in the Chilcot report

Than families of those who were killed, injured or suffered post-traumatic stress consider the detailed findings of the Iraq war inquiry, lawyers are scanning any areas where legal action could be taken. One area they will be examining is whether civil claims for compensation can be pursued as a result of evidence of negligence or other illegalities presented to Sir John Chilcot.

The report exposes the way the MoD and ministers ignored the strict controls – known as harmony guidelines – on the frequency and length of operational tours of duty that are designed to protect the mental and physical health of troops.

Chilcot states: “The government’s decision to contribute a military force to a US-led invasion of Iraq inevitably increased the risk that more service personnel would be put in breach of the harmony guidelines. The issue of the potential pressure on service personnel was not a consideration in the decision.”

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When in January 2006 the government boosted the number of British troops in Afghanistan, there were further breaches of the guidelines as the military worked at full stretch. Figures released to the inquiry by the Ministry of Defence reveal that thousands of troops were exposed to mental and physical pressures deemed to be beyond harmony limits, putting them at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The MoD told the inquiry that in 2004 the guidelines were breached for 18% of the 28,000 army troops in Iraq – more than 5,000 soldiers. The breaches continued each year, dropping to 10% in 2009. The RAF also breached the rules designed to keep military personnel mentally and physically healthy for between 2% and 10% of its 7,000 personnel between 2002 and 2009.

Christopher Dandeker, a former professor of military sociology at King’s College London and co-director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, has previously told the House of Commons that harmony guidelines were well constructed to protect the mental health of soldiers.

He said: “The evidence suggests that if you stay within them they [service personnel] do not suffer; if you go beyond them there is a 20%-50% likelihood that they will suffer in terms of PTSD.”

The report reveals that some military chiefs objected to the risks their troops were being put under but the government said it had no alternative as Iraq had to be dealt with.

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In August 2006 Sir Richard Dannatt, then commander-in-chief at UK land command, wrote to Des Browne, the defence secretary, setting out his most serious concerns about the impact on troops.

He wrote: As an army, we are running hot, and our operational deployments are well above planned levels set out in current defence planning assumptions … you should be aware that, in my opinion, the demands of the organisation are currently greater than our ability to provide satisfactorily for the needs of the individuals.

“Quite properly, we often talk about an implied contract – the ‘military covenant’ – that as an army we have with our soldiers and their families and I fear that it is somewhat out of balance.”

Lt Gen Anthony Palmer, deputy chief of the defence staff (personnel) from 2002 to August 2005, told the inquiry he had also expressed his concern that deploying two brigades simultaneously would breach the harmony guidelines and was “too big a risk”.

When challenged about the risks to the mental health of troops by the breaches of harmony, Adam Ingram, armed forces minister between 2001 and 2007, told the inquiry that the government knew the invasion of Iraq would put additional strain on the harmony guidelines.

Ingram said: We had been involved in both Iraq and Afghanistan, still engaged in Northern Ireland, still having people in Cyprus, still having people in Sierra Leone and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and still having a significant lay-down in the Falklands. All of that made it very difficult to meet harmony guidelines, although it varied between the services – the army under most strain.

“They would be under quite considerable stretch. So medics, engineers, a raft of people who were under very significant strain. We knew that. However, what was the solution? That [Iraq] was then something we then had to attend to.”

Ingram visited Iraq in September 2006 where he was faced with concerns from the military about the impact on the mental health of the troops from the pressure of deployments. Ingram was told: “There was an ‘apparent upward trend (if not surge)’ in the number of people requiring support in the second half of six-month tours. The US provided ‘significantly more in-theatre welfare/counselling support’ than the UK, and personnel evacuated back to the UK to receive treatment at the Priory had, from their unit’s perspective, been ‘lost’ for weeks at a time.”

In 2006, research from the King’s Centre study into the physical and psychological health of personnel deployed in Iraq found there had been no substantial increase in symptomatic ill-health among members of the regular armed forces who had taken part in the invasion of Iraq but alcohol misuse was a common problem. It found there was evidence of a clinically and statistically significant effect on the health of reservists in relation to PTSD symptoms, multiple physical symptoms, and general health.

Combat Stress a charity which supports veterans has dealt with several thousand veterans from Iraq suffering from severe post traumatic stress. It is currently supporting 1,317 veterans of the Afghanistan conflict and 1,486 from the Iraq War.

“We expect to help many more over the coming years,” said Sue Freeth, the charity’s chief executive. “The Harmony Guidelines place important limitations on the length and regularity of deployments to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of serving personnel. Research shows there is a clear correlation between serving more than the guidelines recommend, and an increased likelihood of experiencing PTSD.”