Interview: Commodore Toby Elliott

Commodore Elliott is looking for a table in the Army and Navy Club’s dining room with the impatient bearing of a man who is being kept from his lunch. When we sit down, he peers at me over his spectacles like Capt Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. There is some of Capt M’s bluster, but none of his pomposity. He has just rushed from a ‘very boring’ meeting at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), but I expect, when he was there, he was firing on all cylinders. For eight years, he has been Chief Executive of Combat Stress, a military charity that helps veterans suffering from psychological injury incurred during active service. Commodore Elliott takes his job seriously, and for it he was awarded an OBE in the latest honours list. Under his leadership, the charity is beginning to gain the recognition it deserves, and, more importantly, is coming to the attention of those it wishes to help. ‘In my first year, 300 ex-serviceman came forward; this year, it was 996, and we’re expecting something like 1,200 next year. There is huge demand and we’re very busy.’

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a bearing on this increase, but the organisation can take a lot of the credit. ‘Most of it is as a result of the effort we create to find people.’ And the demand will continue to grow as the pressure on our troops intensifies. ‘The operational tempo has increased; soldiers are going on tour every six months, when it used to be every 18. Meanwhile, soldiers in Afghanistan are fighting a war that has not been matched in intensity since the Second World War.’ Current figures suggest that 4% of those who experience active service are likely to be mentally affected, but Commodore Elliott believes it to be as much as double that amount.

The biggest challenge Combat Stress faces comes from within the Forces themselves: soldiers are ashamed to ask for help and are mistrustful of psychological treatments. ‘The military ethos itself acts as a barrier, and this problem needs to be solved if we’re going to make real headway. Psychological injury needs to be normalised so that it’s treated like physical injury.’ He has evidently repeated these words many times before, but the message is starting to get through. Thanks to the work of Combat Stress, the MoD is becoming more conscious of what needs to be tackled, but the chilling statistic remains that it takes an average of 13 years for a veteran with psychological problems to seek help. ‘Most of the people we’re helping now are veterans of Iraq, Kuwait and Bosnia, who have served 11 years and waited another 13 before coming forward, by which time, they’re on their uppers. Some 75% have lost the support of their families, and most are relying on alcohol to cope.’ When asked about his favourite aspect of the job, he doesn’t hesitate: ‘The people. They’re so deserving of everything we can do as a country to help.’ And there are many sad stories.

Combat Stress had a telephone call recently from a farmer who had found an ex-serviceman living in a car with his family at the end of a farm track. They had been there for three months. ‘He had served in Bosnia, Kuwait and Northern Ireland. Luckily, we were able to rehouse them and start their journey back to normal life.’ Like many of his staff, Commodore Elliott has a military background. He tells of how, aged four, he came back from school and announced that he would like to be a nun when he grew up, ‘because they have such a smart uniform’. When his parents explained that this wouldn’t be possible, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps as a submariner. He lives between his barge (Serenity) in Chertsey and his house in Monmouthshire, and lists the barge, his spaniel Pickles (‘you should be interviewing her’) and his vegetable garden as his greatest pleasures.

After eight years, his passion for improving the mental welfare of veterans is undimmed, and they can expect a better deal in years to come. Tessa Waugh For more information on Combat Stress, telephone 01372 841600 or visit