Jealousy plunges Gulf veterans into civil war

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The Independent Online
Just when Britain's Gulf War veterans have the Ministry of Defence on the run they are being laid low by a new enemy.

A noxious cloud of suspicion, jealousy and mistrust has descended on the soldiers, drawing them into battle, this time to fight with each other.

The in-fighting has led to a succession of top-level sackings and resignations with members of the two Gulf veteran associations at loggerheads, accusing each other of incompetence and poaching members.

"For us to be diverting our energies into all this internal wrangling cannot be good," said one vet. "It's just what the MoD want."

Much of the jealousy surrounds one family, which has established itself at the hub of the veterans' campaign for treatment and compensation.

Ian Hill, the chairman of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association (NGVFA), served in the Gulf for under a week but was exposed to a mixture of drugs designed to protect him from Iraqi chemical attack. He became so ill that he had to be flown home.

He has become the most high-profile of Britain's Gulf veterans, campaigning tirelessly but now seriously unwell. He has repeatedly warned that he has only months to live.

Hill uses the title "Major-Chevalier", which he acquired from the Polish order of St Stanislaus, and his wife Carole, a nurse, uses the title of Dame from the same source.

Next month, Major Hill is due to sail to America to become the first British veteran to be treated in a programme sponsored by the Royal British Legion and other military charities.

Dame Carole is a member of the NGVFA executive committee, although she did not serve in the Gulf. Neither did her daughter Debbie and Ian's brother David, who are also on the committee, which meets at the Hills' family home.

In recent weeks, the committee has fired its vice-chairman and treasurer following votes of no-confidence. Several regional helpers have also been dispensed with and a succession of regional co-ordinators have resigned in protest.

Ben Gunn, the sacked treasurer, said: "They said I was not doing my job as treasurer. The problem was that I was and they didn't like it." And Andy Hagan was sacked as NGVFA vice-chairman after speaking out in support of Mr Gunn. He said: "It's incredible. It has turned into a family circus. I was vice-chairman and supposedly number two but I was kept in the dark."

Both men now expect to be sacked from the NGVFA Benevolent Association, the charitable arm of the organisation. Phil Sherwood, 37, a regional co-ordinator, said he felt "disgusted" by the sackings. "They were two people that I felt I could trust," he said.

In the other camp, Tony Flint, an NGVFA committee member who supported Gunn's sacking, said the treasurer was over-zealous. "He was querying stuff that there was no need to query."

Major Hill, who said he was not interested in politics, only helping the veterans, accused Mr Gunn of being involved in a "power-struggle" to move the association from its Manchester base to his home of Nottingham. Another source of discontent is the relationship between the NGVFA and the Newcastle-based Gulf Veterans' Association (GVA), which was set up a year earlier in 1993.

In recent weeks nearly 400 GVA members have received letters at home from Eddie Blench, a former GVA chairman who is now a member of the NGVFA, asking them to swap allegiance.

Larry Cammock, 58, the treasurer of the GVA, said: "I am extremely disappointed by it. At the end of the day we are all after the same cause; to find out what's wrong with our lads and how to treat it." He admitted that the GVA had problems in staffing its office.

This week, Carole Hill said the GVA no longer existed and that she was seeking to have its helpline diverted to the NGVFA. "We have taken over the GVA completely now," she said. In fact, the GVA is still running albeit without a chairman.

Some 1,200 Gulf war veterans are pursuing legal cases against the MoD seeking compensation for the illnesses they suffered after returning from the conflict.

Soldiers were left exhausted and depressed, often with breathing difficulties, bowel and liver problems. Scores have committed suicide and some claim to have had babies born with physical abnormalities.

Lawyers acting for the veterans say their illnesses were caused by a combination of the chemicals they were exposed to in the form of pesticides, tablets and innoculations against chemical warfare, and leakage from Iraqi chemical weapons dumps. Further problems were caused by the stress of fighting.

Richie Turnbull, who resigned as a NGVFA regional co-ordinator because of the in-fighting but still works with vets in North Wales and Merseyside, said the feuding was down to Gulf War illness itself.

"People are losing their homes, they are losing their jobs and they are trying to get their war pensions," he said. "The pressure is showing in their relationships both personal and professional."