Nearly 3,000 troops are flown back to the UK for treatment

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The Independent Online

Nearly 3,000 British troops have been flown back to the UK for hospital treatment after being wounded, injured or falling sick in Iraq, the Ministry of Defence has disclosed.

The figure - which dwarfs the death toll of 74 troops and aircrew who have died since the invasion in March 2003 - includes hundreds of soldiers evacuated from Iraq with serious injuries or illnesses, some critical.

The MoD has revealed that by last Wednesday, 2,862 personnel had been evacuated back to Britain - mostly because they were too ill or injured to be treated in Iraq. The evacuation rate is currently running at more than 25 soldiers a week, and includes 65 servicemen and women seriously injured in combat over the past four months.

The most critically injured casualties include one sergeant flown back to the UK for neurosurgery after he "took the full force" of a bomb in Basra which claimed the life of Black Watch Private Mark Ferns.

Two soldiers also suffered "horrific" leg wounds in a bombing last month which killed Pte Pita Tukutukuwaqa, from Fiji, and a further eight Black Watch soldiers were wounded in the suicide car bombing that killed the three troops outside Camp Dogwood last month.

But the intense heat and long hours endured by many soldiers also lead to hundreds of casualties from heat stroke and exhaustion.

One army brigade which was based in Basra during the hot summer months last year lost over 150 soldiers flown back to Britain due to "heat-related injuries" between late June and early November. Two soldiers died of natural causes after exercising and a patrol respectively.

At least a dozen soldiers are thought to have had limbs amputated, but the MoD officials admit they are unable to reveal precisely why the troops were evacuated - claiming that medical confidentiality rules bars the armed forces from disclosing even basic statistics on the injured and ill.

The MoD also admitted last week that it did not even know how many casualties were combat-related until August this year. It claims that injuries and illness information is not held centrally.

That policy has been roundly condemned by military welfare and medical charities.

The MoD has refused to release any figures for the number of soldiers suffering from mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder since February. But for the first 12 months since the invasion of Iraq, more than 460 were officially recorded as having mental health problems.

* Yesterday the MoD announced that Acting Chief Petty Officer Simon Owen had died aboard HMS Chatham on patrol in the Gulf. The death of the married 38-year-old from Plymouth is thought to have been from natural causes.

Additional reporting by Cub Barrett