Tom Rounds: We want more VCs, but we we'll never get them like this

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The Independent Online

The historic award this week of the Victoria Cross to Private Johnson Beharry of the 1st Battalion, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, is a timely example of real heroism. Not for him a place in a Premiership football team, the luxury of chart-topping success or selection for a "reality TV" show.

The historic award this week of the Victoria Cross to Private Johnson Beharry of the 1st Battalion, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, is a timely example of real heroism. Not for him a place in a Premiership football team, the luxury of chart-topping success or selection for a "reality TV" show.

No, Beharry is the Army's very own real-life hero who, in confronting the threat of death on the killing fields of southern Iraq, saved the lives of his brothers-in-arms not just once, but on two occasions.

He had a choice: fight or fly. His choice of the former is testament to his reserves of determination and courage and, in no small part, to the quality of training he received in the Army system.

Beharry is a good advertisement for the Army's recent drive for increased diversity in its ranks. That said, the timing of the announcement of Beharry's award - coming in the same week as the release of the Parliamentary Defence Select Committee's long-awaited report into bullying in the Army - invites a suspicion of spin at work.

Case studies on bullying and abuse in the wider population continue to remind us that persistent abusers, whether physical, sexual or any other kind, have more often than not been recipients of abuse in their younger years. Too often this behaviour pattern, now lodged deeply within the individual psyche, is carried forward to await the right opportunity to repeat itself upon some other hapless person. Whether that opportunity presents itself on the battlefield or when the young soldier has reached a level of some responsibility for juniors is a moot point; the pattern will repeat itself regardless.

The Special Investigations Branch of the Army is examining about 50 cases of allegations of abuse purportedly committed by British soldiers against Iraqi civilians and troops. Disappointingly, at least one of these cases involves accusations against a member of the SAS, Britain's fighting elite. Notable cases of abuse by British soldiers in past conflicts have been few; the nagging doubt remains that this may well be a time bomb ticking away at the heart of the Army, put in place, inadvertently, a good many years ago through the bullying activities at the core of its training system.

What is clear from last week's Parliamentary report, is that the Army command structure has dismally failed to provide even the barest level of pastoral welfare for the teenagers entrusted into its care by anxious parents. By contrast, most of the nation's boarding schools offer a more caring pastoral system for similarly aged children - for that is precisely what they are - than could possibly be conceived by the Army.

It would seem the Army thinks that if you clothe 16- to 18-year-olds in uniforms and drill them with weapons, they somehow transmute into grown men, shorn in an instant of all the emotional uncertainties and fragilities that plague the modern youngster. That is not to say, as the Parliamentary report does, that the Army should stop recruiting at the age of 16. There are outstanding examples of the ablest of soldiers being recruited at that age and being moulded into real leaders of men - Sir Peter de la Billiere among them.

Despite the Army's avowed policy of "zero tolerance" of bullying, the continuance of sexual and racial harassment highlighted by the Defence Select Committee's report remains a concern. Abusive behaviour must be stopped, and commanders - as far down as section leaders - must be alert to any occurrence of bullying "on their beat". Then, they must exercise the kind of integrity, willingness and moral courage shown by Beharry to stamp it out. Those proud men who perished in the service of the nation deserve better than for the Army's reputation to be damaged like this.

To stave off accusations of backsliding, the Army must accept the recommendation of the Defence Select Committee to establish an independent body to look into all alleged cases of abuse and bullying within its ranks. The military is not equipped to look into its own affairs, as Deepcut has shown. Bullying has devastating effects. When it happens, the Army has a duty of pastoral care. Only by showing it has learned that will the Army satisfy parents and taxpayers.

Tom Rounds held senior positions in the RAF, including a long spell flying missions in close association with UK Special Forces

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