Sarah Sands: Our duty to the wounded survivors

The powerful appeal of an angry Army wife...
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Families of soldiers are braced for the knock at the door. For Sue Norton, whose husband, Captain Peter Norton, was an ammunition officer in Baghdad, it came at 3am on 25 July 2005. She looked out of her bedroom window at the two figures in army uniform on the porch. She settled her sons, aged two and seven months. She put on her dressing gown and made a pot of tea.

The news was harder to absorb than her thudding heart first thought. Peter Norton was examining an explosive device that had killed four Americans when a second bomb went off. He had suspected a secondary device and so refused to let anyone else accompany him. Despite his smashed body and blood-soaked uniform, Capt Norton refused medical assistance because he said it was not safe to approach him and he continued to direct operations. Sure enough a third device was later found.

Peter Norton, who was later awarded the George Cross, lost an arm and leg, and the list of his other injuries ran on for pages. His wife listened with fear and wonder: "I thought all this has happened to him and still he survived. What a man."

Today, we remember those who have died in war, but we should also think of those who returned against all the odds. The lack of decent care for the badly wounded is one of the most shocking betrayals of the Military Covenant.

It is acknowledged, even by Tony Blair, that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not planned in perfect etail. One little-regarded fact was that the nature of the insurgency would produce certain sorts of injuries. Another was that the numbers of seriously wounded would increase.

I have been sent some casualty tables: the number of serious casualties in Iraq rose from 46 in 2003 to 63 in 2007. In Afghanistan there were no serious casualties in 2001, and 32 in 2007. Remember, this is a war expected to last a generation.

Mrs Norton says: " We have created a sub-class of young male amputees." And how do we treat them? When Peter Norton awoke in the civilian intensive care ward of Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, and saw his wife, he screamed at her to get away. He thought he was still in Baghdad.

He spent a year there sharing a ward with geriatrics, victims of car crashes and criminals under police guard. As his wife says, the military need to be with their own. It is not just the shared experience but the particular humour and the high standards.

Capt Norton went on to Headley Court Defence Services Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Surrey for another year. Sue Norton says that there is now a waiting list for wounded soldiers and a desperate shortage of physiotherapists.

We see coffins draped in the Union Flag carried down the steps of a plane and we bow our heads respectfully. But we do not see the wounded, and cannot imagine the agony of young proud men suddenly rendered helpless.

When Sue Norton first visited her husband at a US military hospital in Germany, she stayed at a Fisher House home where relatives can be close to the injured. Sheets are on the beds, food prepared, toys laid out for the children. A sign says: "We are proud to serve you."

Pippa Dannatt, wife of Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, wants to see our own version – Norton homes – in Britain. She is raising money through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) Forces Help, the leading national charity committed to helping and supporting those who serve or have served in our armed forces, and the families of both.

Politicians treat the wounded and their families as a puzzling inconvenience. But theirs is a monumental sacrifice and we should be "proud to serve them" to the end.

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