Army leader forced to use US helicopter

Row over equipment shortages for troops in Afghanistan reignites
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The Independent Online

The row over the shortage of troops and helicopters for the British force in Afghanistan intensified yesterday with the head of the Army saying that more "boots on the ground" were needed.

Ministers were also embarrassed by the disclosure that General Sir Richard Dannatt was travelling in a US Black Hawk helicopter on his valedictory battlefield tour before stepping down. "Self-evidently, if I move in an American helicopter it is because I have not got a British helicopter," he said.

Asked whether criticisms of the Government were justified, General Dannatt said: "I don't want to go into whether the Conservatives are right or not... But our mobility is a key enabler and I know the commanders need a lot of that."

General Dannatt stressed: "I don't mind whether these feet in those boots are British, American or Afghan. But we need more to have the persistent effect to give the people confidence in us."

Defence sources pointed out that Nato helicopters are pooled and thus General Dannatt was not short of an aircraft, even if a British one was not available. The General acknowledged: "There is a pool and we share the assets, but we have got to put as much into the pool as we take out."

He said that supplying equipment to Britain's 9,100-strong force "has probably not moved as fast as I would have liked it to have moved, but we are increasing the numbers".

In angry exchanges in the Commons, David Cameron doubted whether the Government had a "relentless commitment" to increasing the number of helicopters. But Gordon Brown retorted: "It is not the absence of helicopters that has cost the loss of lives."

Meanwhile, the leading charity helping soldiers suffering from combat stress insisted yesterday that it had been "abandoned" by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Toby Elliott, the chief executive of Combat Stress, said the charity was "overwhelmed" by new cases, which have risen by 66 per cent in four years to 1,300 last year. The MoD has covered about half the charity's annual costs of £9m but now expects it to negotiate with the NHS for funding.

"The Ministry of Defence is desperate to get rid of us to the health service so that they can achieve savings measures by not having to fork out £4.5m," Mr Elliott said. "I feel abandoned in this problem, abandoned by the Ministry of Defence and [by] the [veterans] minister responsible."

He said Combat Stress would in future have to enter a lottery of bidding for funding from each of the local primary care trusts, of which there are 152 in England alone. "We know that some PCTs will say no," he said. "It will be a postcode lottery." The MoD has agreed to continue to fund treatment for war pensioners until the situation is resolved.

Professor Simon Wessely, a specialist on military mental health, insisted that post-traumatic stress disorder was still rare, with two to four per cent of troops presenting with the problem, but that the macho nature of the forces meant many did not seek help. "The overall picture is not very encouraging," said Prof Wessely. "Most people don't get treatment, and of those who do, most don't get the right treatment."

He said his research showed that in cases where the Government's harmony guidelines had been breached – they state that a soldier must have two years between six-month tours – the individuals were 20 per cent more likely to have problems. The situation was particularly acute in those who had tours of duty unexpectedly extended.

The veterans minister Kevan Jones said: "I'm surprised and disappointed that Toby Elliott failed to raise any concerns when he met me earlier this week. The MoD has always acknowledged the role of Combat Stress in providing mental health care for veterans and we funded them with £3.5m this year. I'm looking forward to working with the new Chief Executive when he takes up post... and I will continue to work with Combat Stress and the NHS in tackling veterans' mental health concerns."

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