Argentine Falkland Veterans
Plagued By Suicide

By Simon Gardner
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) - Falklands war veteran Marcelo Torres was so desperate to escape the battlefield horrors that still plagued his dreams two decades after the conflict that he put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
The Argentine was lucky. The gun misfired and the bullet blew a hole in his tin roof instead. But more than 300 of his fellow veterans have killed themselves since Argentina's ill-fated 1982 invasion of the remote south Atlantic island cluster, and survivors are making a desperate plea for help.
Marginalised on their return home from war, many veterans have been unable to hold down a steady job. Argentina's worst ever economic crisis in 2001 and 2002 has only made things worse, putting work and good health care further out of reach.
"I tried to kill myself twice ... I can't sleep, am always nervous, anxious, depressed," said former infantryman Torres, his voice trailing off as he rubbed a shrapnel scar on his shin. He has been seeing a psychiatrist for 12 years.
"We need help," he added, as a fine drizzle soaked the green canvas army-issue tents he and dozens of fellow veterans have camped in for several weeks opposite Argentina's presidential palace to demand higher war pensions, medical help and recognition.
After weeks of seeing the disgruntled veterans on his doorstep, President Nestor Kirchner recently decided to draw up a definitive official census of veterans to determine their medical and housing needs.
Some 650 Argentines, most of them conscripts, were killed during the 10-week war against Britain for sovereignty over the Falkland Islands -- known here as Las Malvinas -- over which Argentina has a centuries-old claim. Over 250 servicemen from Britain's professional armed forces were killed. Argentina invaded the Falklands on April 2, 1982 and by June 14, Argentine troops had surrendered to British forces.
Paid a meager monthly national war pension of around 440 pesos, some veterans resort to dressing up in their war-time fatigues, berets and medals to sell badges of the Argentine flag on buses and trains. Others simply beg.
Many of Argentina's 12,000 Falkland veterans were only students when sent to war by military dictators and have since returned to impoverished, remote provinces where they have no access to psychiatric treatment.
"What we are demanding is a health plan that befits a war veteran, a dignified war pension ... recognition by the state and economic compensation for the past 22 years," said veteran protest organizer Martin Borbad.
"A lack of work and lack of help from the state leaves some of our companions unable to take it any more and they commit suicide," he added.
Edgardo Esteban, a local journalist and conscript in the war, said the suicide problem is taboo and veterans like himself have long felt like "a kind of Argentine AIDS sufferer."
To get the message out, Esteban wrote a book about the conflict and suicide, "Enlightened by Fire", and the film version is due to debut at the Berlin Film Festival.
Psychological scars are not just an Argentine problem. British soldiers are fighting their own demons.
"The suicide rate is very high. It's well over the number of dead that we actually had (during the war)," said former Royal Marine Colin Waite of the Falklands Veterans Foundation in Britain, who himself tried to commit suicide four times.
One thing that gnaws at the Argentine veterans is that their conflict was an aberration, fought for all the wrong reasons.
They were sent into battle by hard-drinking Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, who declared war to mask the woes of a crumbling economy and growing criticism of military rule.
Galtieri sent them hastily without the proper equipment. They will never forget how their World War Two-era weapons jammed in the south Atlantic cold, or being so hungry for lack of rations they had to hunt ducks, penguins and sheep to stay alive -- and then eat them raw for fear a smoking fire would be seen by the enemy.
When it was time to come home, they felt tainted by the association with the bloody dictatorship, under which up to 30,000 suspected leftists were killed or disappeared.
Like the war itself, veteran affairs were not handled with care. Adding insult to injury, thousands of men who didn't fight in the war masquerade as veterans to claim pension benefits.
Kirchner, who hails from the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz near the Falklands, might be the man who makes a difference for the veterans. His government has vowed: "We cannot have another single death".
The veterans will stay camped on Kirchner's doorstep until they see proof.
Copyright © 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.



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