People back home are indifferent to us, say troops in Iraq

With fear and death constantly at their shoulders, British forces are fighting for a cause they fear the public do not truly understand
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The Independent Online

For many this will be the last Remembrance Day in Iraq. Three years and eight months after the invasion, British withdrawal from this most emotive and divisive of wars is fully under way. But for British troops still stationed there, talking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday, there is a fear that their work, and the sacrifice of fallen comrades, is not appreciated back in the country in whose name they fight.

Today's ceremony at Basra airport will be a time of quiet reflection about the 170 members of the military killed in Iraq operations and the bravery and the sacrifice seen during the mission.

"Although we will be remembering all those who have given their lives in the service of their country, what will be forefront in our minds will be those who have died here," said Padre Duncan Weaver, who will conduct the service.

"It will bring to the fore again the repatriation services we have attended here in Basra. As the coffins were carried into the aircraft, one was reminded of one's own mortality as we realise it could easily have been any one of us being remembered."

The base in Saddam's old palace is now in Iraqi hands and the UK troops have been re-based at the airport. A truce with the Shia militias appears to be holding, and the formal handover of control of Basra to the government of Nouri al-Maliki will take place in December. Force numbers will be reduced to 4,500 by the end of the year and then to a reserve force of 2,500 by next spring, some of whom are expected to be based in next-door Kuwait.

For many, however, the departure from Iraq will not be the end of conflict: Afghanistan looms on the horizon. Last Friday, the Ministry of Defence announced plans for troops to be deployed there into the next decade.

Few among the British forces in Iraq believe the justification used by Tony Blair to join George Bush's war, and there is general exasperation about the lack of planning which created chaos out of victory. But there is also a strong feeling that people back in Britain have forgotten about the men and women they had sent off to fight the war in their name, and a lack of appreciation of the hardships and danger they face.

Lance Bombardier Michael Collins, a 22-year-old father of two with the Royal Horse Artillery, said: "The format of Remembrance Sunday needs to change so that we remember those who have died in recent conflicts more.

"The wider public are indifferent or not interested in what the British troops are going through. The Military Covenant is a joke. Every soldier risks his life when on operations and has to be away from home for a long time. Only now are people starting to speak up in support of the troops. "However it is too little, and very late. I am looking forward to going back home. It will be great to have normality and to see my family and friends. I can't wait to be no longer scared or worried all the time and not having to watch my back."

Corporal Martin Ballister, of the Royal Air Force Regiment, feels "the public don't care. They can't relate to the military because it does not affect most of them. It's not in their back garden, so why should they worry? As far as the Military Covenant is concerned the people making the decisions are not the ones facing the danger. Things take too much time to get done."

Piper McCartney, 19, of the Irish Guards, smiles ruefully: "Sometimes I think the public care more about David Beckham's new hairstyle than soldiers fighting and dying over here. But I think the Government is starting to realise what our needs are. We have been getting a bit of new kit."

But Senior Aircraftman Gavin Nesbitt does not believe the Government is doing enough. "If politicians choose to put us in harm's way to achieve political objectives, then they should also provide the best kit to protect us. The only time they seem to care about us is when it gets into the newspapers."

Sergeant Lyttle of the Irish Guards, from County Down, in Northern Ireland, will today recall "the friends I have lost here in Iraq and the many who were injured in Northern Ireland. I do think the young people back home do not understand what we are about or the ideals and standards we aspire to.

"I think the Government has taken steps in the right direction. However, much is still needed. The general mood among us is that we are putting our lives at risk here in order to achieve very little."

Lance Corporal Cleal "will take an extra moment this year to remember my grandad, who served in the Second World War. He sadly died in September this year. People do care about us: you only have to walk into a pub and an old soldier will be asking you questions and with people trying to understand what it must be like here in Iraq. I believe the Government is doing what it can. This is my second tour here. You can have your own opinion about the situation here, but all that must go to the back of your mind so you can carry on the task you have been given."

There will be personal losses, of friends and comrades, who did not make it home, who will be in the forefront of many minds today.

"Gunner Lawrence and Corporal Taylor: we lost them both, they died in 2004," said Gunner Christopher Hewitt, a 21-year-old from Swindon. " We have a real feeling of empathy with those who have died. We have this bond because fear and death are constantly at our shoulder."

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