Chief of Defence Staff urges more support for returning troops

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Indy Politics

Britain's most senior military officer has acknowledged that the armed forces need to do more to support servicemen and women when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, said that those returning from war zones were under "considerable stress" and highlighted the problems many have with military accommodation and adjusting while on leave from tours of duty overseas.

He spoke as the Queen led the annual Remembrance Day memorial at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, honouring the service personnel and civilians killed in conflict since the outbreak of the First World War.

The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, and the acting Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, joined those leaving tributes at the Cenotaph after the traditional two minutes' silence. Thousands lined the pavements of Westminster while former prime ministers Baroness Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair also paid their respects. Prince William – an officer in the Blues and Royals – laid a wreath for the first time.

Sir Jock said the occasion was an opportunity to give "tangible expression to the pride that the nation feels in its armed forces, and of course the sadness and gratitude it feels for those who've made the ultimate sacrifice and the families who've borne the terrible loss."

He said the forces were "well looked after" on operations, but acknowledged that more should be done for service personnel on their return home.

Sir Jock told the BBC: "It's when they come home and see the standard of the accommodation they have to live in, when they come home and the pressures that are on them, on their families, in the relatively short intervals they have at home before they're deployed in operations again – that's where we have to pay increased attention."

Liam Fox, the Conservative defence spokesman, echoed Sir Jock's statement. He told Sky News: "We have to understand that we have got problems with many skilled men and women leaving the armed forces.

"One of the reasons for that is that they have unhappy service families. We have to deal with ... the length of time they are separated, the quality of their housing, the quality of education their children get, the medical care for not only members of the armed forces who are injured but their families in general.

"All these are issues that need to be dealt with, because if you want to create a retention crisis the best way to do it is to create unhappy servicemen and women – and the best way to do that is to create unhappy service families."

Sue Freeth, director of welfare at the Royal British Legion, criticised the level of compensation available to injured service personnel and warned that the legion was being forced to step in to fill gaps in government support.

She told the BBC's Politics Show: "There are a larger number of people who have returned in recent years who have been injured, and a lot of things have changed. I think the community feels as though it's supporting those individuals and those families, perhaps more and more in isolation, and that's not something that is satisfactory. I think we're finding more and more younger people coming to us as a service charity for assistance. And some of those things that we're assisting them are really the Government's responsibility."

Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, insisted that the Government had increased spending in real terms. He said: "I see the results of that in the equipment that our forces have on the front line and I also see the investment that we are putting in back here at home in accommodation. I know there is a lot to be done, but it is time that we need – not just money. It is the investment of money appropriately but time to address some of the challenges that the previous government should have risen to but didn't."