Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Equipped to Die in Helmand

Sent the following Email to Michael Gove and got a response saying he would take it up with Liam Fox:

Dear Michael,

I had the honour of spending the Christmas week this year with a guy called John – a soldier in the Royal Irish regiment who returned from Afghanistan in October.

John related, in fascinating detail, some of the ordeals that his unit had been through during their 6 month tour in Helmand. Particularly he related the futility of their mission. Tasked with attempting to build trust between the occupying army and the civilian population his regiment were clearly fighting a losing battle. He explained how friends had been maimed by booby traps, suicide bombers, concealed bombs and mines and how attempts to build relationships with local people had resulted in their injury and deaths by Taleban forces who took action to ensure that any form of collaboration with the ‘enemy’ was severely punished to disincentivise further collaboration. There was a particularly terrible story of a little girl who was executed for taking sweets from British soldiers.

He also explained how money was being poured into utterly futile attempts to ‘civilise’ the local population and build infrastructure – a complete children’s playground sitting incongruously in the middle of wasteland by a village that was never used and made no sense to local kids who didn’t consider ladders and swings to be toys. £70,000 given to a local ‘contractor’ to build a road near to their base which resulted in a ditch being dug by the side of a dirt track and no further action. Attempts to explain the wide ranging reasons for the occupation to local people who had no access to mass-media and whose horizons rarely extended beyond their own village – although many related their fascination at the concept of a sea or ocean, simply serving to illustrate the difference in perspective. (John’s off-hand but possibly hugely insightfull suggestion was simply to establish a national TV network and give every family a TV rather than try and enforce will upon people with a military presence – much cheaper and much, much more effective)

Before leaving for Afghanistan, John and all his colleagues (other than a couple of officers) each invested £300 of their own money in buying their own body-armour. This was on the advice of other experienced soldiers and the unofficial agreement of the senior officers of the regiment. The reason for this was the certain knowledge that standard issue body armour was inadequate for the task required. The standard issue armour is nearly twice the weight of similarly effective, up-to-date, body armour available and is much more bulky. As John put it, if you are sitting in a static position, manning a fixed gun position for example, the standard issue equipment would, whilst being unneccesarily heavy, be perfectly adequate protection. However, it severley restricts mobility and in a moving, running, fighting battle it can represent the difference between life and death. The sometimes split second movement required when a firefight errupts, or rapid movement is required can mean that the standard issue equipment, compared to that available on the open market, can be a death sentence.

There is a video clip here of John's unit in Helmand. The video shot whilst in the midst of a live engagement with the Taleban was taken by a civilian interpreter – it illustrates how vital adequate body armour and other equipment is.

I watched this with John, his younger brother Ben (who has just completed his basic training and is scheduled to go to Afghanistan in 2010) and his mother who stared at it, tense and white knuckled, as the raw truth of what her child had gone through and what both her sons are destined to go thro again descended upon her. I hope I haven’t met a woman whose life I will discover has imploded when I hear the customary acknowledgment of deaths in action at the start of a weekly PMQs next year.

But, the really shocking thing about this story is not simply that our soldiers (I use the term ‘our’  loosely as a large proportion of those in the Royal Irish are Republic of Ireland nationals – so they are not even fighting for their own country’s interests) are inadequately equipped for the task they are asked to perform but that by taking responsibility for minimising the possibility of being maimed or killed they are taking another horrible risk. Whilst almost every solider in the Royal Irish regiment took the decision to equip themselves with adequate body armour they did so in the knowledge that if they were injured, lost a limb or were crippled as many have been, they would not be entitled to compensation as those who wear standard issue equipment would be.

The outrageous fact is that soldiers who do not wear standard issue equipment are not entitled to the standard, albeit it inadequate, compensation that soldiers would normally be entitled to when injured in action.. they get nothing. Standard operating procedure states this very clearly.

So, these soldiers face an awful decision. Do they use standard kit in the certain knowledge that they are far more likely to be injured or killed than if they use superior kit that can be bought for a few hundred quid. Is it better to risk injury or death if you reduce the chance of sustaining a life changing injury – but at the price that if you do sustain an injury that might result in you losing a limb or requiring assisted living for the rest of your life – you get NO compensation? – what a choice!

The immediate impact of this situation, before we even get into the realities of eventual outcomes, is that it puts it a huge dent in the morale of every serving soldier. How does a soldier feel if the government of the country he is fighting for not only fail to equip him for the task he is to perform, but when he seeks to compensate for this inadequacy, penalises him and forces him to take a perilous additional risk.

The extent to which soldiers feel alienated came home to me when I mentioned, only in passing, that I had been to the ‘Help for Heroes’ Rugby game at Twickenham before Christmas and that I strongly supported the effort that was being made to provide financial support for returning injured soldiers. To a discernable extent I unwittingly suddenly perceptably ‘became a friend’ but only understood the reason for the reaction later when I grasped the depth of feeling related to the often horrific, life shattering injuries, that soldiers are sustaining, and often have inadequate resources to deal with. The sense of desertion is palpable when you understand the facts.

John related that people from defence procurement organisations had visited Afghanistan and had been thoroughly briefed on the inadequacies of equipment – there is no ignorance of the facts. There is simply inaction. Whilst John and his colleagues understand that it may take time to test equipment and arrange supply lines etc they don’t understand why they are penalised and faced with horrific choices simply because they can make rational, life protecting, measures in a timely effective manner – whilst the MOD seem incapable of doing so.

The Royal Irish regiment’s 6 month tour of Afghanistan, in the summer months (apparently the most active period for the Taleban) ended in October when they handed over to the Royal Marines. John described how he and colleagues watched in dismay and sorrow as the Royal Marines arrived to relieve them wearing and carrying standard issue body armour. It would appear that their reaction was well founded...

During their entire 6 month tour, the Royal Irish lost one man – Justin Cupples at Sangin – though many were horribly injured. The Royal Marines, now roughly only half way thro their tour lost their 14th man, Danny Winter, on Wednesday night – ALLREADY their 14th Man has been killed! Were Danny Winter’s last desperate seconds spent tragically and pathetically lumbering for safety encumbered with heavy, standard issue body armour as his life was extinguished?

John can’t prove that inadequate, standard issue body armour is responsible for 14 times the number of deaths of Royal Marines in half the time that the Royal Irish sustained – he acknowledges there may be other unknown contributory factors. But he has no doubt that the body armour is, at the very least, significantly responsible.

In simple terms, an easily changed matter of government policy is a death sentence.

I hope you can do something with this and I hope that Liam Fox is able to make some impact on this issue. I appreciate that simply waving it in the face of the government, or for example deriding their inadequacy in the media may not in fact be the best way of acheiving the essential change. But if other attempts fail please let me know so I can independantly seek to get some wide-spread profile for this ‘story’ with the aim of acheiving some action.


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