Nine dead, 116 injured, two VC citations. It is time to show we appreciate what our returning troops went through. By Andrew Johnson
There was no tickertape parade. No marching bands or flypast. A nervous knot of wives, mothers, girlfriends and children waited in the rain and under glare and scrutiny of TV and press cameras. After hugs and kisses, the Anglians went home for a slice of normal life and a well deserved holiday.
When they left for their six-month tour of Afghanistan in April, Tony Blair was yet to step down as Prime Minister, the nation was yet to cope with its wash out summer, foot-and-mouth crisis or to find its new obsession with rugby.
Members of the Anglians, nicknamed the Vikings, will be glad to be back. They leave behind the heat, dust, 400,000 bullets fired in some of the fiercest fighting since the Korean war, nine fallen comrades, the blood of 116 injured and many tears.
The ferocity of the fighting is evident from the number of casualties the regiment sustained. Three men, Privates Aaron McClure, 19, Robert Foster, 19, and John Thrumble, 21, died in August in a friendly-fire incident when American F-15s bombed their position.
Corporal Darren Bonner, 31, and Lance-Corporal Alex Hawkins, 22, died when their patrols were hit by explosions. Privates Chris Gray, 19, and Tony Rawson, 27, were killed in firefights with the Taliban; Captain David Hicks, 26, was fatally wounded during an attack on his patrol base and Lance Corporal George Russell Davey, 23, died in a fire arms accident.
Two regiment members have been nominated for the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military honour. One is Captain Hicks (see box), the other Lance-Corporal Oliver Ruecker, 20, who rescued a comrade from a burning vehicle while under fire.
If both receive the award it will be the first time two men from the same battalion have received it since the Korean war. Lance-Corporal Ruecker would be only the second living recipient in 38 years.
The casualties bring the total number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to 252. Another three and the tragic milestone of total lost in the Falklands war will be matched.
While the soldiers returning from the Falklands where honoured with a victory parade through London, for those enduring tours in Iraq and Afghanistan there has been only local, poorly attended parades.
Two local parades are planned for the Anglians next month, in Norwich and Bury St Edmunds.
Many, however, could do without a parade, and the bother of polishing boots and buffing up the buttons on their uniform.
What they would prefer is an acknowledgement of the trials they have been through by the public; and that the Military Covenant, which says that in return for risking their lives soldiers are well-treated and – in the event of their deaths – their families looked after, is honoured.
Colonel Bob Stewart, former commander of UN forces in Bosnia, said that troops found parades "tedious".
"What they want is for people to understand that they've been running risks on your behalf and some people have lost their lives," he said.
"General awareness of what's going on out there, the ferocity of the fighting, what they're going through day to day is limited amongst the public and that is an issue," Lt Bjorn Rose, of the regiment, said.
Another contentious issue for many Anglians back in barracks is that their accommodation is worse than they had in Afghanistan.
In September the powerful Commons Defence Select Committee produced a report describing the state of the Anglian's Pirbright barracks in Surrey as "disgraceful".
Shortly after the government announced there would be an extra £80m for improvement to the accommodation. Critics pointed out, however, that the money wasn't new.
Julie McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Army Families Federation, said: "The Government hasn't taken any notice of the Defence Committee report into army accommodation at all.
"The Treasury announcing £550m for Army housing was a complete red herring because that money had already been announced earlier this year. All army accommodation is being squeezed."
Many of them, despite the conditions, would have felt supported and understood on the battlefield. Now they are back, however, the horrific nature of what they have seen and done will take it's toll.
The charity Combat Stress said there was a strong likelihood that a percentage of men returning from the Royal Anglian Regiment would suffer "combat-related psychological injury" sometime in the future.
"For Combat Stress, it would be reasonable to expect that some of these men will experience long-term problems which may take years to show," said Commodore Toby Elliott, the charity's chief executive.
"But we may never know the true percentage because some of the men will never admit they have a problem."
Symptoms of combat-related psychological injury include: depression, raised anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder.
Commodore Elliott said adequate facilities do not yet exist to treat soldiers returning from war with psychological complaints.
"At the moment, the NHS is unable to provide what soldiers may need because it does not have the people or experience to deal with them," he said.
Last week, giving evidence to the Defence Select Committee's inquiry into the medical care of troops, Dr Chris Freeman, a psychotherapist, told MPs there was no specialist mental health care provision for former soldiers in the NHS.
"It hardly deals with them at all," he said. "If a man with a Service history was referred to us, it would be no different were he a postman, a painter or a squaddie in the Army. There is no specialist service."
The Anglians are recruited from Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire and are stationed at the Elizabeth barracks in Pirbright.
Patrick Mercer, Conservative MP and former commander of the Sherwood Foresters, said another problem with local parades is that the merger of regiments means many have lost their unique local identity. He has joined a campaign to mark the sacrifice of those who have fallen with a medal or plaque for the family.
"People are coming back and people don't seem to know what they've been through," he said. "In Newark we've set up the Newark Patriotic Fund to raise money for families whose son's have come back seriously injured. The soldiers are well treated but the mums and dads are having to make all sorts of sacrifices in order to visit.
"It's all very different in America. Disembark at almost any airport across the United States today and somewhere on your journey from the jet-way to the luggage carousels a large banner will be hanging above with the words, 'Welcome Home Heroes' or something similar. No one gets back from Iraq without some kind of hullabaloo," he adds.
While a homecoming might not always make the national news in America , it will always generate excitement locally.
This was demonstrated in rural Alabama on Thursday, when returning members of the 152nd Military Police wound through the state to the town of Scottsboro escorted all the way by members of the Hellfighters and Patriot Riders, two Christian biker clubs, as well as fire engines and police cars from towns along the route.
The soldiers, on three chartered buses, arrived at the Scottsboro National Guard Armory in the afternoon to a crowd of 500 cheering people, mostly made up of wives, husbands, children and parents.
"It was overwhelming," serviceman Stacey Exley of Scottsboro said. "There were a lot of people out in support. They were there waiting. It felt great to see old faces."
In the UK, soldiers can expect no such homecoming or official recognition in the shape of medals or goodwill gestures.
An MoD spokesman said medals are only awarded to the men, not families, and then to those who had earned them.
"Medals are issued posthumously to the next of kin when the person earning the medal has died," he said. "The institution of a posthumous medal would be a fundamental change to the British Honours system.
"Memorial plaques were sent to the families of those who died while on active service during the First World War as recognition of the unprecedented scale of deaths and due to many of those serving at that time being conscripts. Neither circumstance applies today.
"It was decided that the most effective way to commemorate those service personnel who had died while on duty since 1945 was by way of a national memorial that would be accessible to all. The National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield in Staffordshire was opened last week by the Queen."
The grand ceremonial opening there meant little to Daniel Gent, a 22-year-old Anglian, who was still in Afganistan as the great and good toured the new monument: "We just want people to know the Anglians have come home. We took over from the marines and have been fighting just as hard but nothing seems to have been said. Good lads have died fighting and some people don't even know there is fighting going on."
The Anglians have set up their own fund for a memorial for their fallen comrades, and hope to raise £100,000. They will be marching through Norwich on 22 November and through Bury St Edmunds on 23 November.
Additional reporting by Ian Griggs and David Usborne
Soldiers' barracks worse than front line, warns MP
Regiment's return is a bitter reminder of loss
Allan McClure couldn't help feel a tinge of jealousy when he watched TV images of smiling family and friends greet the Royal Anglian Regiment on its return home. His cherished nephew, Aaron (above), 19, was killed with two of his comrades in a friendly-fire incident when an American F-15 bombed their position. "It was horrendous," Mr McClure, 38, said. "We knew the platoon was coming back and Aaron should have been with them. It broke our hearts." He added that recognition of what the troops have been through is incredibly important for grieving families.
Captain who died leading his men to safety
Captain David Hicks (above) is one of two soldiers from the Royal Anglian regiment to be nominated for the Victoria Cross – Britain's highest award for bravery. Capt Hicks, from Wokingham, Berkshire, was fatally wounded during an ambush when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his command post. Despite being in agony from the shrapnel injuries he knew would soon kill him, he refused morphine and an airlift to safety so that he could remain aware and continue to lead his 50 men in a rearguard attack against the rocket position.
Soldiers' barracks worse than front line, warns MP
Pirbright barracks in Surrey, home to the Royal Anglian Regiment, was criticised in a scathing report on armed forces' accommodation. James Arbuthnot MP (above), chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, told the 'IoS' that troops in Afghanistan "dreaded" returning home because the standard in Afghanistan was so much better. Non-commissioned officers "slept eight to a room, with minimal privacy and negligible storage" at Pirbright, a situation which is fuelling the military recruitment and retention crisis.Reuse content