A debt of honour: They fight and die for Queen and country. We must support them

Families are taking legal action over lack of protection for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. At home, the growing numbers of injured are poorly cared for and their homes are unfit for heroes. Andrew Johnson on the betrayal of the historic Military Covenant
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The Independent Online

Another mother is this week enduring the indescribable pain of losing a son, searching for words to describe what his life meant to all around him.

"Christopher was my pride and joy; everybody is heartbroken who knew him," said Nicolette Williams. "He touched so many lives. He died courageously serving his country and Queen, and we are all very proud of him."

Aircraftsman Christopher Bridge, 20, became the 74th soldier to die in Afghanistan when he was blown up on a routine security patrol around Kandahar airport. The death of the Gunner from 51 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, originally from Sheffield, brought the total number of servicemen killed in Afghanistan in August to four. Another four were killed last month in Iraq.

With accelerating death and injury rates, we live in the most dangerous time for British servicemen and women since the Second World War. Over the past three months, casualty rates in Iraq have risen to roughly six British troops killed every month and at least 10 seriously injured . In Afghanistan, the figure is closer to four deaths and four wounded.

Increasingly, the servicemen themselves and the families who wait for them or greet their broken bodies when they are medically evacuated fear that, while the troops perform their duties bravely, they are not being supported properly. More than 100 families, for example, are waiting for an inquest. Some have waited four years.

Relatives and the troops themselves have become extremely concerned about the way their colleagues and family members are treated. They say that when people join the armed forces they are aware they may have to fight and risk being maimed or killed. But the other side of that – the Military Covenant – is that the young men who risk their lives should be supplied with adequate equipment, given the best care if they are wounded, and, if they die, that their families should be looked after. But, in too many cases, they are not.

Which is why The Independent on Sunday is campaigning for the Military Covenant to be honoured. It is a campaign supported by families, retired generals and politicians from the three major parties. We are also supported by the British Legion, which will launch its own campaign later this month.

A panel of experts and interested parties, from politicians and service personnel's welfare bodies to families and senior military figures, are offering practical solutions to the problems faced by British troops which would allow the Covenant to be repaired.

A key plank of this is that service personnel should be given the right equipment to do their jobs. Perhaps the most compelling example of this is the forces' continued use of the snatch Land Rover in Iraq and Afghanistan. The families of some serving soldiers are so concerned about the continued use of this vehicle – which was designed for Northern Ireland and is not armour plated – that they are considering bringing a class law suit against the Ministry of Defence.

Two of most recent casualties in Iraq – Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath, 22, and Lance Sergeant Chris Casey, 27, – died when the Land Rover they were travelling in was blown up by a roadside bomb. More than 20 service personnel have died in Snatch Land Rovers, yet the MoD has no plans to take them out of service and replace them.

And we appear to be failing to honour the Covenant on many fronts; not just in terms of equipment, but in the treatment facilities we provide for casualties, and in the aftercare for those who recover from their wounds.

Last week, the IoS highlighted the growing campaign for a dedicated military hospital – more than 30,000 people, including hundreds of serving soldiers, had put their name to a petition calling for a dedicated military hospital. They argue that the 14 beds at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham are inadequate to cope with the 6,000 military inpatients the hospital has seen since 2001, along with 30,000 outpatients. Soldiers, say campaigners, need to be with their own kind.

This week, the Government responded that the numbers of injured troops did not justify a dedicated military hospital. On Tuesday, families will protest outside the MoD in support of a military hospital.

Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, a total of 1,741 personnel have been medically evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan, for all injuries including battlefield wounds, with 2,942 treated in field hospitals. Of these, 512 are officially classified as wounded in action.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, this weekend called for the Covenant to be renewed: "The Military Covenant is – and I quote– 'an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army throughout its history.' Are we fulfilling it today? I believe we would be hard pushed to answer 'yes'."

There are more examples of shoddy treatments of British troops. Again this week the mother of Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, who lost both legs and suffered 36 other injuries when a landmine exploded in Helmand Province in Afghanistan last September, said she would launch a High Court challenge against the MoD over the level of compensation her son was offered. The 23-year-old paratrooper with the 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, was offered just £152,000 – compared to the £484,000 a typist won from the MoD for after suffering a repetitive strain injury to her thumb.

It was also revealed yesterday that 1,500 injured British soldiers and bereaved families are waiting for compensation payments, some two-and-a-half years after they received their injuries.

More than 100 inquests are still outstanding, some after four years. They include the inquests into the deaths of 14 personnel who died when a Nimrod crashed in Afghanistan a year ago today. Inquests, said Jenny Green of the War Widows' Association, are essential for families to come to terms with their loss. "It's in the best interest of all the families to get to the bottom of incidents. What matters most is to get to the truth. This is best done by having a specialist coroner."

Graham Knight, whose son Ben died in the Nimrod crash, said yesterday that he doesn't expect to have an inquest for another two or three years. "We haven't had the board of inquiry yet," he said. "An inquest would give me peace of mind. It will allow us to ask questions that we can't ask at the board of inquiry [the military investigation]. Since the crash we've only spoken to the RAF twice, which was when a Panorama investigation into the crash was coming out; the other was about the memorial. That's all we've had from the RAF. There's been nothing officially."

Where there have been inquests, they have left some families dissatisfied. The inquest into three soldiers killed when a roadside bomb destroyed a Land Rover in July 2005 didn't take place until January this year, and then it lasted just three hours. The families of some of those soldiers killed are now considering legal action against the Ministry of Defence for the continued use of the vehicle.

Jocelyn Cockburn, a solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen, a London firm that specialises in class actions, said: "The MoD recognises that Snatch Land Rovers provide very little protection against this bomb which now pervades the whole of Iraq. They recognise that it is a post-conflict type vehicle. The question is why are soldiers still being sent out on patrols in these vehicles when the security situation is so dire?

"It seems to me that the MoD has avoided asking itself whether it is morally and legally acceptable to knowingly put our soldiers at such a risk. They say that it is a matter for commanding officers to decide what vehicles are used on a day-to-day basis. The families of those who have lost their lives do not agree."

She added: "Many of the families have been left frustrated and upset by the inquest procedure. Susan Smith was told that the inquest into the death of her son and his two colleagues would last five days. In fact, it took only three hours to conclude all three inquests. The coroner felt that it was outside the remit of the court to investigate the continued use of Snatch. By not investigating the safety of Snatch Land Rovers for use in these conflicts the coroner was unable to carry out her most important function, which is to identify failings and make recommendations to prevent future fatalities in similar circumstances."

But few believe the authorities will act unless strong pressure is brought to bear. Which is why the campaign has attracted support from a wide spectrum of interested parties – politicians of all three parties, military top brass, families and associations.

Some of the UK's most senior military figures say the lack of strategy in Iraq makes the forces' job harder. Yesterday, General Sir Michael Jackson, who led British troops during the invasion in 2003, condemned American planning for the postwar period. Last month, the IoS reported how senior generals told the Government that 5,500troops in Basra could achieve "nothing more".

Colonel Bob Stewart, the former commander of Nato forces in Bosnia, visited Basra in July and described the experience as "depressing". "We were attacked eight times in 24 hours," he said. "The base was attacked 557 times in the four months prior to 24 July."

Hundreds of servicemen and women responded to a BBC questionnaire about the war in Iraq, in defiance of new regulations that they are not allowed to speak out.

"In 22 years of service I have never known morale to be so low; several of my direct colleagues and many others I have spoken to are counting the days until they can leave," one wrote. "I am in the same situation. The problem is that the British Armed Forces members are their own worst enemy; we are asked and we do. When we prove we can do more with less, we are rewarded with less and asked to do more... Maybe the British people should start to show their appreciation more openly. To do this, they must be given the true facts and numbers of our casualties, and as taxpayers should demand we are properly equipped, manned, housed and paid. Make no mistake, the Covenant HAS been broken."

There have also been concerns over accommodation for the forces.

Another post on the website reads: "Shocking morale, little done to reduce constant overseas deployments, while cutting back our numbers in the middle of two major conflicts, [military] hospitals closed, inquests taking four years, shocking quality of accommodation, ... and 30-minute phone calls a week from theatre."

General Sir Michael Jackson also said yesterday: "Some of the accommodation we provide is still, frankly, shaming."

The MoD says it has ordered more than 200 new armoured vehicles for Iraq and Afghanistan, but that the Snatch Land Rover still has a role to play.

Honour them

Our aims

We want soldiers to have the right to expect any war to be lawful, to have adequate resources, the right to be properly cared for in the event of injury, and the right to know that, in the event of their death, their families will be properly looked after.

The Covenant

"Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices – including the ultimate sacrifice – in the service of the nation... In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals.

"The chain of command, from the Government downwards, is responsible for articulating and sustaining the morality and justice of the cause in question... Only on this basis of absolute confidence in the justice and morality of the cause can British soldiers be expected to be prepared to give their lives..."

The Panel

The 'IoS' has convened a panel of senior military figures, politicians, welfare agencies and relatives of serving, injured and deceased troops:

Col Bob Stewart, UN commander in Bosnia; Lord Bramall, former chief of defence staff; Gen Julian Thompson, Royal Marines commander; Dr Liam Fox, Tory defence spokesman; Nick Harvey, Lib Dem defence spokesman; Peter Kilfoyle, former Labour defence minister; Rose Gentle, Military Families Against The War; Jenny Green, War Widows' Association; Reg Keys, a bereaved parent; Danni Hamilton, the mother of a serving soldier; Commodore Toby Elliott, chief executive of Combat Stress, the ex-services mental welfare society; Jerome Church, general secretary of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association.

My son did not have to die. He wasn't protected

Private Phillip Hewett, 21, was blown up when a roadside bomb detonated next to the Land Rover he was travelling in in Maysan Province, Iraq, in July 2005. Two of his comrades from C Company of the 1st Battalion, Staffordshire Regiment, Private Leon Spencer and Lieutenant Richard Shearer, also lost their lives.

On 9 August this year, two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, while travelling in a Snatch Land Rover. Some of the men's families believe that this type of Land Rover should not be used as it does not have the armour to repel a roadside bomb.

They argue that the MoD is aware of this, which is why four families are preparing a class action. Their solicitor is writing to Des Browne tomorrow to request a meeting."

Phillip's mother Sue Smith, pictured, said: "They should not have been sent out in a Land Rover... I cannot understand how the MoD can insist they're OK."

Major General Julian Thompson, former Commander of Special Forces, said: "There is a vehicle that has been used in Afghanistan called the Viking. There were at least three explosions and on each occasion the people walked away from the blasts.

Andrew Johnson and Richard Osley

I've been suicidal for 18 months. I've been forgotten

Lance Corporal Mark Dryden feels abandoned. All he wants to be able to do is dress and feed himself, an everyday routine that has been a painful challenge ever since he lost his arm in a roadside bomb in Basra nearly two years ago.

"I have been suicidal for the past 18 months," he said. "I once sat on the top of a cliff, drunk in my car, for two hours. It is the guilt, the lack of help,getting forgotten about."

The 30-year-old returned from Iraq haunted by the traumatic image of the explosion which also killed his friend and colleague, Sergeant John Jones.

But rather than getting the help he needed to recover both physically and mentally, L/Cpl Dryden, says he was forgotten about.

It was left to his mother Elizabeth, 58, to give up her factory job to care for him in his home town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. He had prosthetic arms that didn't fit or couldn't be operated properly, whileconfusion within the Army over misplaced records made it unclear whether he could be discharged from service.

"I am infantry and we simply don't leave anyone behind. I got left behind,"said L/Cpl Dryden.

Colonel Bob Stewart, a former British commander in Bosnia, said: "They should create a military super hospital which would also be a centre of excellence."

Richard Osley

We can't even get on the list for an inquest

A year ago today, Sergeant Ben Knight, 25, died with 13 of his comrades when the Nimrod MR2 he was flying in crashed near Kandahar in Afghanistan. As the families mark this tragic anniversary, they will also be asking why it crashed Why has air-to-air refuelling of Nimrods been stopped? And why have the RAF stopped using a certain kind of fuel-tank on Nimrods?

These questions won't be answered for at least two or three years. Ben's family are among more than 100 families still waiting for inquests. Last year, when more funds were given to the Oxford coroner, a backlog of inquests was soon cleared, says Jenny Green, of the War Widows Association. Now inquests have moved to the Wiltshire coroner, but with no more funds. The coroner said he will disperse cases. Ms Green says most coroners have no experience in questioning the military, and she wants a dedicated one.

Ben's father, Graham, right, says: "We haven't had the board of inquiry yet. That's put back until November. Until that's happened, we can't even go on the list for an inquest, which means we're falling further behind in the queue."

Andrew Johnson

How 'IoS' readers can help

To send a message of support to our soldiers visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs