Patrick Mercer: We must be ready to tend to the casualties of this war

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The Independent Online

We are getting used to the flag-draped caskets, the precise drills and the sadness as each dead hero is carefully carried off the back of a transport aircraft at Brize Norton.

No one wants to dwell on the exact circumstances of each soldier's death, hoping that it has been as quick and as clean as possible, although that is seldom the case.

But, of course, most deaths involve other casualties as well and it is these that we need to know more about. There are five men wounded for every one who is killed in Afghanistan, and we must have greater visibility on exactly how our soldiers, sailors and airmen are being hurt and the aftercare that this Government offers them.

My visits to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham have been salutary. Twenty-five years' service in the infantry has exposed me to many injuries before, but I am still shocked by the effects of high explosive and gunshot wounds on young bodies. Be in no doubt, the care that our fighting men receive at this hospital is world class, but is society ready for the long-term support these boys will require?

It is now many years since we, as a nation, have had to deal with a swathe of amputees, other serious physical injuries and mental scars. The Government must be ready not just to compensate our fighting men, but to look after them into later life. I recall my father, three times wounded in the war with the Sherwood Foresters, only starting to have terrible, debilitating, nightmares in the early Sixties. We have got to be prepared for similar symptoms to take a long time to "present" and be ready to support the victims.

That is why we need clarity on how many are being injured and to what degree. It was very revealing that the Government announced last week that 125 reinforcements were being sent to Afghanistan. The suggestion was that these were mainly specialists, but that was not the case. A full Company from 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment were being sent as individual battle casualty replacements (BCRs) – the first time such a thing has been contemplated for many years. Up until now, each unit has been told to find its own BCRs from within its own resources but now reinforcement has had to be put on a war footing.

This is a war in all but name. The MoD cannot view this as some sort of police action that can be side-lined. We need to know how many of our fighting men are being maimed so that we can be ready to help them. War is a brutal and ugly business. Thank God we have people who are prepared to do the dirty work for us; we must stand behind them.

Patrick Mercer OBE MP was an infantry commanding officer before becoming a defence correspondent for the BBC. He is now the MP for Newark in Nottinghamshire and chairman of the counter-terrorism sub-committee