Our boys deserve better than this: Families demand a dedicated military hospital

Serving soldiers, their relatives and retired generals are among 30,000 people who signed a petition calling for action on casualties as the argument over honouring the Military Covenant, first reported by this paper, rages on. By Andrew Johnson
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Indy Politics

The Government faces an unprecedented revolt among rank and file soldiers, hundreds of whom have signed a petition along with more than 30,000 mothers, friends and families, calling for a dedicated military hospital.

As the Royal Anglian Regiment mourns three more victims of the war in Afghanistan, and another two soldiers injured in the same friendly-fire incident last week are preparing to fly home for treatment on the NHS, families, soldiers and top brass are becoming increasingly angry at the lack of specialist care.

They argue that the Military Covenant, a unique agreement between soldiers and the Government that they risk their lives in return for fair and decent treatment, is not being honoured – an issue first highlighted by The Independent on Sunday.

The petition, now submitted to Downing Street, has been circulated among soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany and Britain via the internet. The signatories say wounded troops have particular needs, which make normal NHS hospital wards unsuitable for their care.

Inquiries by the IoS last week uncovered a shocking picture of soldiers waiting months on NHS waiting lists, paying for private medicine, or not receiving any treatment at all. There was also continued concern over soldiers being placed on mixed wards with civilians at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, an NHS hospital which is the first stop for wounded soldiers evacuated from war zones.

One mother writes on the Military Families Support Group website: "My son came home from Afghan on two weeks R&R, discovered he had been injured [with a] double fracture to his jaw. He was not treated for his injury other than pain relief and told to eat and speak as little as poss. No x-rays taken. At home he was in a lot of pain with swelling. I took him to A&E who gave him antibiotics, I decided to send him to our dentist who finally x-rayed him and found the fractures on both sides so he had a floating chin. Sent him to Sell Oak Hosp. who said as the fractures were now four weeks old they could not do anything and sent him back to Afghan telling him to eat soft food only." She added that the wound was caused by a faulty missile launcher which recoiled into his face. "His teeth were loose so he ate very little and [was] skin and bone when he got home. How could they send him back?"

Jenni Wilson's son is 19. But he still has to climb into bed with her and her husband when he is woken by nightmares. She still has to cuddle him, and rub his nose like she did when he was a baby, before he can sleep. Her son, an infantry soldier who served in Iraq, is haunted by the sight of a child sliced in two by a British bullet which was fired into a crowd in Basra. He is tormented by the memory of the boy's father gathering up the bits of child, sitting on the curb, and hugging them.

Her son, still a serving soldier, is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"He should have received counselling," Ms Wilson said. "Whether they want to or not. It can take months for these things to come out. He thinks he is a monster. No one has told him it's not him who is the monster, but the men who sent him to war. I've signed the petition. These soldiers have special needs and need to be treated in a special environment."

These are just two examples of the hundreds of wounded and traumatised soldiers the families believe are being let down by the Government.

Army blogging sites are also alive with criticism. One soldier writes: "Squaddies have a language and terminology of their own and a totally different sense of humour and perspective on life; civvies that have never served just don't understand it and that's why the guys need to have their own dedicated hospital."

This is why a growing campaign has been joined by the British Legion as well as the Conservative party leader David Cameron in calling for the Covenant to be honoured.

On Friday, speaking at Brize Norton, Mr Cameron said: "There is a document – the Army doctrine – written down in plain English that needs to have a far wider understanding and appreciation throughout our country. In it is the Military Covenant. Are we fulfilling it today? I believe we would be hard-pushed to answer 'yes'."

Carol Jones, of Military Families Against the War, whose son Sergeant John Jones was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in 2005, said: "The worst injury of all is mental damage. These flashbacks. It's something you can't see. It's swept away. But they see some terrible things over there."

Sue Smith, whose son, Private Phillip Hewitt, was killed by a bomb in 2005 in Maysan Province, Iraq, added: "At the end of the day these lads are having to wait on waiting lists, which is ridiculous."

The MoD says that the number of wounded soldiers does not justify the cost of a specialist hospital, but there are as many beds in the NHS as soldiers who need them for as long as they need them. When they are evacuated to the UK they are taken to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, where there are just 14 designated military beds. These are at the end of a public ward which is curtained off from civilians. If more than 14 soldiers need treatment, however, they are put on public wards. If fewer, then a civilian may take the spare bed. If the soldiers are transferred to a specialist burns or neurological hospital, they will be on pubic wards.

It is also treating soldiers with PTSD at the Priory Clinic.

An MoD spokesman said that soldiers were still given priority after their army discharge.

Attitudes are very different in America. Sergeant Major Andrew Stockton recalls being part of a parade of veterans in New York recently, and the very different public attitude towards the fighting men, regardless of the politics of the war.

On the opposite carriageway New Yorkers stopped their cars and got out and cheered. The city's police and firemen lined the route, saluting the injured soldiers. For the half-dozen British military amputees among them – more used to being the hidden victims of the conflicts – it was a deeply emotional moment.

"It was overwhelming, edging on embarrassing. I definitely felt humbled by the experience. We continually kept saying that we were just doing our job," said Sgt Major Stockton, of the Royal Artillery, who lost his arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Helmand last summer.

The handful of British soldiers, who had lost legs or arms, had been invited by the British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association (Blesma) to see how the Americans respect, even hero-worship, their wounded veterans.

Sgt Major Stockton, 40, said the locals opened their homes to the British soldiers – total strangers – and treated them like royalty. Various activities were laid on, from trips to the Statue of Liberty, specially lit up for the occasion, to adapted water sports.

"The Americans said they had learned lessons after Vietnam when a lot of people came back from there and people hated them. They said they came to realise that even if you don't agree with the war you have got to support your soldiers, they are your sons and daughters," he explained.

In Washington there is a pristine hospital facility dedicated to war veterans, and the walking wounded from Iraq are treated in state-of-the-art facilities. The head of the US Veterans Administration (VA) has cabinet status and runs a panoply of programmes for veterans, their families, and survivors. Among other things there are veterans' compensation schemes for injuries, grants for education, pensions, cheap home loans, medical benefits and life insurance.

The system is under pressure, however. The Pentagon says more than 2,500 Americans have died in Iraq and nearly 18,000 have been wounded. But more than one million fighting men and women have been deployed on the battlefield over the past seven years and some 144,424 of that number have sought treatment from the VA system since returning home.

An army study has also revealed that 35 per cent of Iraqi war veterans have been treated for PTSD.

Here the lack of a military hospital is a "disgrace", according to retired top brass.

Major General Julian Thompson said: "I've signed the petition. Just planting them around the country is not good enough in my opinion. Part of the covenant is that they will be looked after. And that is not being fulfilled."

Former head of the army, Field Marshall the Lord Bramall, added: "Their actual treatment by doctors and nurses at Selly Oak is pretty good. But when they get discharged they go out and get in the NHS and that's when they get lost in the system. This has been a shambles. It's an absolute disgrace."

Additional reporting by Terri Judd and Leonard Doyle