Argentina Finally Recognizes Veterans of Falklands War

BUENOS AIRES – This Tuesday the Argentine government announced a substantial increase in the pensions paid to veterans of the 1982 Malvinas/Falkland Islands War. The decision is a first step towards recognizing the participants in a conflict that continues to cause suffering and death even 22 years later.

The islands, located in the south Atlantic off the coast of Argentina, are considered an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, but sovereignty over the islands has never been officially relinquished by Argentina, where they are known as the Malvinas.

In 1982, during the final stages of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, Argentina launched an unsuccessful attempt to wrest control of the islands, and a war against the British ensued.

The number of Argentine soldiers who lost their lives during the conflict has now been almost matched by the number who have died since the end of the war, due to the physical and psychological damage that veterans have been forced to confront without adequate support from the government.

Veterans of the war over the islands in Argentina first began to receive a monthly government pension of 400 pesos (equivalent to $400 at the time, but now the equivalent of just $134) in 1992, or ten years after the end of the conflict.

The decision announced Tuesday by the government of Néstor Kirchner will raise the pension to 924 pesos, or roughly $310 a month.

"This is a first step in the right direction," IPS was told by Héctor Gómez, a non-commissioned officer during the 1982 war. "We would also like an official recognition," he added, alluding to the claim for monetary compensation that is currently being studied by the government.

The pension hike came in response to protests waged by the veterans, who camped out from May until mid-September in the Plaza de Mayo, the central square located across from the government palace in downtown Buenos Aires. At one point, the veterans attempted to storm the palace itself.

Their protests were aimed at demanding an increase in their pensions, access to quality health care services, credit facilities for purchasing homes and "official recognition," consisting of monetary compensation.

In response, the government organized a census of veterans that is to be completed Oct. 30. According to the estimates of veterans’ representatives, the census will reveal that there are roughly 15,000 ex-combatants, half of whom are facing serious problems in finding adequate housing.

While the census is underway, the decision was adopted to increase the monthly pension paid to all those who fought in the war, which lasted from April 2 until June 14, 1982.

Statistics from the Federation of Malvinas War Veterans point to 649 Argentine and 250 British casualties during the conflict.

Around one-half of the Argentine deaths resulted from the sinking of the General Belgrano, a cruiser that was hit by a missile fired by a British submarine.

But the most pressing concern for ex-combatants is the high number of veterans who have fallen ill or died after coming back from the Falklands/Malvinas, as victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which can lead to physical and psychological ailments, substance abuse, and even suicide.

As a result, another 400 combatants in the war have died since the end of the conflict, including 265 who committed suicide. The last two cases of suicide occurred this year, and their causes were directly related to the victims’ involvement in the war.

"The raise in pensions is a form of a recognition, and of remembrance," Edgardo Esteban told IPS. Esteban was sent to the Malvinas/Falklands as a soldier at the age of 18, and he remained there until the Argentine troops surrendered to the British on June 14.

"It’s no coincidence that there have been so many suicides. It’s a result of the complete lack of recognition for those of us who took part in that terrible war. People give you a pat on the back on every anniversary, but there has never been a serious policy of medical and psychological assistance for ex-combatants," he said.

Esteban is a journalist and writer who was able to channel the trauma of the war into an autobiographical account entitled Iluminados por el Fuego (Enlightened by Fire). The book inspired a feature-length movie of the same name that is currently being produced by Argentine director Tristán Bauer.

The movie recently won the Films in Progress award at the San Sebastián Film Festival in Spain, and is scheduled to premiere in Argentina in April 2005, on the 23rd anniversary of the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas.

Enlightened by Fire tells the story of a young soldier who loses his two best friends to the war. One dies in combat, while the other commits suicide shortly after returning home.