Terri Judd: 'Amputees, blinded, burned. You name it, they had it'

The horrific impact of war is vividly displayed at Selly Oak Hospital

Related Topics

On the perimeter of Birmingham airport away from the holiday makers, businessmen and other travellers are a group of non-descript redbrick, industrial buildings normally used for cargo.

There, on most days in the last month, ambulances have been queuing – waiting for the gates to open.

As the country focuses on the planes landing at RAF Lyneham with the coffins of the fallen, it is a very different scene in Birmingham. There, soldiers who have lost limbs, been blinded or terribly burned are welcomed home – men and women who have also given up their lives for their country – at least the lives they had once known. They are the "invisible" victims of the Helmand conflict, young men or women with injuries so heart-rending that one officer privately described them as "politically explosive". This month alone it is believed that one platoon of 30 Welsh Guards suffered 19 injuries while another company of 100 men reported 40 casualties.

"I have always said that you hear, very sadly, about those who lose their lives but you are not hearing about the three or four other people who have suffered life changing injuries. I have always found that surprising," said Sergeant Major Andrew Stockton, who lost his arm after being ambushed in Helmand in 2006.

While those who are not as badly wounded are brought into RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, the most terribly injured are transported to the airport closest to Selly Oak NHS Hospital in Birmingham. Outside the gates the ambulances wait for the plane to taxi to a stand before collecting their wounded. In the worst cases a helicopter is on standby. Few doubt the incredible efforts made to save the lives of the wounded. Equally, few actually hear of their existence.

"We never know how many they are bringing in," one airport worker said. "There would normally be one flight a week but you could tell there has been a push on recently because they were landing every day. They used to be discreet, only come in the dark, in the early hours of the morning but now they come at all times."

The ambulances pass swiftly into the centre of England's second largest city to the hospital, which last week conceded that it was having to reassess beds every 48 hours because of a surge in casualties. In June it took in 69 new military patients of which 30 were battle casualties. Some are in a military ward, others in critical care or the burns unit, those with brain injuries, are separated off at Edgbaston's Queen Elizabeth NHS hospital.

Unlike the dedicated American facilities, there is no official sign that in the heart of this civilian hospital is The Royal Centre of Defence Medicine, a ward full of young men, missing limbs, parts of their heads or paralysed. Their lack of self-pity is striking. They only talk of returning to their units while beside them parents bustle around, masking their own grief with encouraging words.

Frances Shine, whose 25-year-old son Stephen lost a leg in Iraq, said: "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was shocked. I just did not realise these kids were coming back with these kinds of injuries. There were amputees, blinded, burned. You name it they had it."

Last week Lieutenant Commander Debra Emmerson, a ward manager at Selly Oak Hospital, said: "There is a definite and noticeable change here due to the operations currently ongoing in Afghanistan. We have the surge capability and we have been planning for this peak in casualties for some time. At the moment we are planning 48 hours ahead in terms of staff and beds."

In 2006, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was embroiled in a public furore after banning ITV from frontline visits following a programme on injured soldiers. Since then the MoD has only allowed highly-managed interviews with soldiers who have battled with stunning resilience.

Major General Mike Von Bertele, Commander of Joint Medical Command, said: "The military and NHS clinicians at Selly Oak Hospital have a duty of care to our injured personnel and their families who have a right to privacy and medical confidentiality. It would be entirely inappropriate if we compromised our responsibilities by exposing them to the media before they are well enough to handle such contact.

"Once our patients are sufficiently recovered we have frequently enabled all branches of the media to contact them."

Any frontline journalist witnesses the casualty toll. One reported in July that the Light Dragoons battle group of 700 had suffered 55 casualties in three days of fighting. Soldiers on the ground talk of an average 15 to 20 per cent casualty rate at the moment.

"The news bulletins say a soldier has been killed in Afghanistan. But you don't hear that another has been crippled, lost a limb or is in a critical condition," said Mrs Shine. Some senior officers argue that to do so would risk even further alienating a population whose support is waning for Afghanistan operations.

Colonel Richard Kemp, former commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, which suffered nine deaths and 57 seriously wounded in the summer of 2007, disagreed: "If the Government is worried it would further undermine support, they should be putting their case more strongly. If their case is undermined by that sort of thing then it deserves to be." Colonel Kemp is rallying for a British version of the American Purple Heart medal for the wounded.

Gilly Wiggins, whose 22-year-old son Simon had a leg blown off in Afghanistan, said: "The medal is the only way we are going to get any indication of the amount of injured service personnel that are coming out... My son didn't lose his leg, the others did not lose their legs, they gave them for their country, doing their job."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
The Queen spoke of respect for all cultures and faiths in her Christmas message  

Decoding the Queen's speech: Was Her Majesty taking a swipe at Ukip?

Jane Merrick
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015