Patrick Mercer: Give our troops what they want

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The Independent Online

"A new spleen would be nice!" So said a young private of the Royal Anglians when I quizzed him over the thing he wanted most on return from operations in Afghanistan.

This soldier had initially been wounded in Iraq, had fought back to fitness only to find that infantry warfare in routine temperatures of 50C was too much for his already battered frame. He didn't want tickertape or garlands, he just wanted normality and a degree of empathy from uncomprehending civvies.

If we want to recognise our young heroes' achievements, let's do it in a currency that they value. First, soldiers are human and they need the opportunity to recover between operations. Wives and girlfriends need quality time with their men, yet there are now so few combat troops that operational gaps are difficult to achieve. Let's listen to the handful of senior officers who argue for more fighting men and recognise it as an economy, not a luxury.

Next, let's take a leaf from the Americans. For instance, arriving at Dulles last week and starting to crowd at passport control, there was suddenly an announcement: "All military to the front of the queue!" US troops and their families can buy cars and mortgages more cheaply. While on operations they pay no income tax. Meanwhile, our blokes pay community tax for barracks that they seldom see, let alone sleep in, and require charitable subscriptions for their rehabilitation hospitals!

If we value those who fight for us we must understand their needs and aspirations. Parades and pomp are ephemeral; proper pay and living conditions are not.

Patrick Mercer is MP for Newark. He spent 25 years in the Sherwood Foresters, commanding in Bosnia and Northern Ireland