It is extremely rare for such a senior officer to side with someone against the MoD, but Brig Burns feels so strongly that Sgt Walker has not been treated well that he is prepared to speak up for one of his men.
On 3 May 1995, Sgt Walker was in Bosnia with a peacekeeping force; his regiment, the Royal Engineers, was helping to build a road. A Serbian tank opened fire on the school where the United Nations team had set up headquarters; the injuries Sgt Walker sustained came near to killing him and resulted in the loss of his right leg.
The MoD has already denied Sgt Walker any compensation in the High Court; if this week's appeal fails, it will probably be the end of his hopes; but if it succeeds it could open the way for other soldiers injured while on peacekeeping missions to make similar claims.
Soldiers injured or killed while on active service are not entitled to compensation. However, MoD policy allows compensation to soldiers injured in Northern Ireland on the same scales as for criminal injuries suffered by civilians overseas, because such injuries are judged to have resulted from criminal activities rather than warlike action. This policy was not extended to include the peacekeeping missions to Bosnia.
Sgt Walker's case hinges on proving that he was not taking part in hostilities when he was injured.
"The key to getting compensation is proving that criminal activity has taken place," explained Brig Burns. "In Sgt Walker's case, he was in an environment assessed by the MoD to be warlike action, and therefore he is not entitled to compensation under the law as it stands. What our solicitor will argue is that this act by a single tank on a clearly marked UN base was not a warlike activity but a criminal act."
The tank, he adds, was a rogue which was probably not acting under military orders; it fired on an obvious UN target; and at no stage was fire returned.
Sgt Walker's case came before the High Court in February and he lost. However, Brig Burns says, this did not mean the case was hopeless. "The High Court judge said that under the current rules he had to reject the case, but the implication of granting the right of appeal is that it would be appropriate for the law lords to consider whether the law as it stands should be reviewed."
Sgt Walker's career has been ruined by the severity of his injuries. He remains a sergeant but by now he could have expected to have been promoted. He is confined to storeman jobs and desk duties, and is still in intermittent pain. He can no longer play football, run or swim; the only sport he can manage is cycling (he recently cycled from London to Paris to raise money for the British Legion). "I have felt suicidal," he says. "I have missed out on all the rough and tumble with my children. I can't even pick them up because my false leg won't take the weight."
His wife, Debbi, and children, Danielle and Nathan, now 12 and six, were moved from their home in Germany back to England when he was in hospital and the children had to spend time with their grandparents while Debbi nursed him full-time. She is the force behind his appeal. "I had to do something constructive to focus my energy," she says. "It is such a massive injustice. I started writing letters, 'phoning round - it took ages to find a solicitor that would take us on."
Sgt Walker, says Brig Burns, is "an outstanding soldier still". The brigadier's support of his comrade rather than the military status quo puts him in a delicate position. "I fully understand the position the MoD has had to take, which is in line with the current laws of the land," he says. "What Sgt Walker is hoping for is a review of those laws and a broader interpretation of what should be considered criminal activity against United Nations forces. Nothing would please me more than to see the laws amended; his many supporters are hoping and praying for success next week."
Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a former Royal Marine Commando captain and UN diplomat, is also supporting Sgt Walker. "British soldiers who go to war do not expect compensation because they go as fighters, but we should make a clear exception for this peacekeeping mission," he said. "There are clearly unfair anomalies in the MoD compensation schemes and they must be ironed out, particularly since it is very likely that the UK Armed Services will be needed in these sorts of peacekeeping operations again. We must not leave those who paid the price for peace out in the cold."Reuse content