Last month the Conflict Trauma Resource Centre (CRCT) launched a report on the needs of ex-Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers at Stormont. Some of them had previously shared painful memories with people from both traditions in Drogheda. I heard about flashbacks, sleepwalking, wakening at the kitchen sink in the middle of the night and of recurrent nightmares following horrific tragedies.
Yet 'Post Traumatic Stress' was long unrecognised and a military psychiatrist says the army was embarrassed and so dismissed it as indicating 'lack of moral fibre'.
Many ex-UDR soldiers feel hurt, neglected, undervalued and misunderstood. Their regiment never received proper recognition and was often pilloried as part of the problem. Yet early recruits came from both traditions hoping to contribute to a better future.
Some Catholic members expressed reservations about the work they might have to do and similar heart-searching went on among loyalist recruits. How could they be expected to act against their own communities on the streets? But the UDR was not meant to engage in public order duties and service outside Northern Ireland was not required. They were to protect from terrorist outrage, guard key installations, patrol and set up checkpoints. This might entail great risk but also meant repetitive menial work in dirty, uncongenial and even flea-infested huts all for a pittance.
Up to 25% of early recruits were Catholics some courageously defying intimidation to serve the community as they saw fit. When launched in 1970 the UDR had 2,440 recruits of which 946 were Catholic. In a moving ceremony, pregnant with new hope, the first recruits, a 19-year-old Catholic and 47-year-old Protestant, were sworn in. They were to be a beacon of new hope in a society torn apart by sectarian strife. As part of the British army it was hoped that the UDR would avoid charges of sectarian bias.
But they came under heavy and frequent attack and faced disruption on a large scale in 1971. Internment brought threats to Catholic soldiers who were sometimes told to leave their homes. All kinds of intimidation followed. Businesses were boycotted, shopkeepers refused to serve soldiers while children faced insults and bullying at school. Before a ruthless enemy UDR soldiers were restricted in their response and highly vulnerable living in sectarian communities or isolated areas.
Part-timers followed normal day jobs and were attacked while driving school buses or otherwise going about their normal activities trying to earn a living.
One ex-UDR man told how many of his close friends and relatives were murdered and he escaped death only by the skin of his teeth.
After a serious wounding he lay in a muddy pond face downwards. His attackers, convinced he was dead, kicked his body before moving on.
But amazingly he then managed to drag himself to a nearby house and knock on the door. It opened momentarily but was quickly slammed in his face. Somehow he struggled to another home in that desolated place and stumbled upon a Good Samaritan Catholic family who bathed his wounds and called for the help that saved his life.
A young son of a UDR soldier tells how as a 15-year-old boy he witnessed his dad being shot through the front door of his home and dying in his arms.
He recalled: "After the murder I didn't go out much. On my first day back at school people seemed to be talking about me, behaving differently towards me I didn't go back. I'm not aware of anyone from the school calling or writing to see why I wasn't there. I sat no examinations and received no qualifications." According to CTRC, many ex-soldiers feel the government, the NIO and the army have all failed the families. There is anguish at the failure to properly honour and care for the needs of ex-soldiers and their families. Yet 197 UDR soldiers, 61 ex-soldiers and five who transferred to the RIR paid with their lives. In stark contrast, the UDR killed eight people in the course of its duties. Demonised and distraught the legacy lingers on. In the early 1990s the UDR was replaced by the RIR and a wide range of unresolved issues remained. Some ex-UDR members say they still feel under threat and many hesitate to raise their voices against what they see as gross injustice.