Scandal of treatment for wounded Iraq veterans
Â· Soldiers 'denied proper hospital care'
Â· Letters reveal anguish of families
Ned Temko and Mark Townsend
Sunday March 11, 2007
A shocking picture of neglect and the appalling treatment of wounded British troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan emerged last night in a remarkable series of letters from soldiers' families obtained by The Observer.
The sheaf of complaints, passed on by deeply alarmed senior military sources, claims that soldiers have been deprived of adequate pain relief and emotional support, and in some cases are unable to sleep because of night time noise in the NHS facilities caring for them.
The NHS last night said that it had launched an inquiry into the complaints.
One letter sent to the MoD and NHS managers reveals how the youngest British soldier wounded in Iraq, Jamie Cooper, was forced to spend a night lying in his own faeces after staff at Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital allowed his colostomy bag to overflow. On another occasion his medical air mattress was allowed to deflate, leaving him in 'considerable pain' overnight despite an alarm going off.
Another complaint alleges that one serviceman suffered more than 14 hours in agony without pain relief because no relevant staff were on duty. Others claim that supplies of pain relief have run out on wards where injured troops are being cared for, and that in one instance a geriatric patient tried to climb into an injured soldier's bed by mistake.
Months after the row over mixed military-civilian wards, the new revelations open potentially more serious allegations concerning the level of treatment being provided to seriously injured troops. The revelations also follow the recent scandal surrounding conditions at the Americans' flagship domestic military hospital, the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington, which prompted President George Bush to order a review of the nation's military hospitals.
Details of the complaints regarding British soldiers' care last night provoked shock and indignation both from Opposition politicians and senior military figures. Tony Blair's long-time Chief of Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, said the letters revealed a 'scandalous' failure of care which the government and the military had an 'urgent' duty to fix. In remarks that will be seen as particularly damning given his personal friendship with the Prime Minister, Guthrie added: 'The handling of the medical casualties from both Afghanistan and Iraq is a scandal.'
He said the blame did not lie with NHS staff, but with a 'lack of leadership and drive' by senior military medical officers and government ministers in addressing the need to provide purely military-run care for at least the most serious casualties. Guthrie said that Blair and other senior figures who had visited Selly Oak had been misled about the level of care currently being provided. 'They were presented with a whitewashed version,' he said. Top military and political leaders, Guthrie added, 'seem more interested in finding excuses for why things are not good than in correcting them'.
The Tory shadow defence spokesman, Liam Fox, accused the government of 'an act of betrayal against our bravest soldiers'. Fox will raise the issue in the Commons this week and seek an urgent reply from defence secretary, Des Browne, on each of the cases raised in the letters.
Sue Freeth, welfare director for the Royal British Legion, which has 600,000 members, revealed they had, for the first time in its 86-year history, put forward a motion questioning medical treatment for troops. She said: 'We are very concerned about treatment. We know that the MoD policy department are trying to address it but some of the areas are beyond their control.'
The complaints include an impassioned protest from the parents of Cooper, 18, the youngest British soldier injured in Iraq, detailing a series of alleged lapses in his care at Selly Oak. Their son, the letter concludes, had been 'sent to Iraq straight from training with no real military knowledge and [is] not receiving the care and attention that is needed for his recovery.'
A letter from the mother of another soldier treated at Selly Oak, corporal Alex Weldon, speaks of 'grubby' surroundings, unbearable noise levels and inadequate visiting facilities and concludes: 'Surely the rest of us - family members, military personnel or hospital staff and authorities, have a duty of care to these brave men and women.'
A further five-page document is from Weldon himself, written on behalf of a number of wounded soldiers on the ward after having thought 'long and hard' about doing so. It complains of repeated failures to give adequate and timely pain relief and insensitive comments by consultants.
Another letter is a handwritten plea for help sent last week from the mother of 22-year-old Ben Parkinson, who was injured in Afghanistan. It accuses the military of breaking a promise to give him a place in military rehabilitation facility at Headley Court in Surrey. She says both she and her husband have now had to abandoned work in order to care for their son at the London area civilian hospital where he has been sent.
'Goalposts are moved constantly,' the letter says, adding that they have been told that assurances of access to treatment at Headley Court - including a brochure still being handed out to arriving casualties at Selly Oak - are 'out of date.' 'Ben fought in the war in Iraq at age 18, he covered [during] the firemen's strike, served for seven months in Kosovo... and then fought in the "never-a-shot-be-fired" war in Afghanistan,' his mother protests. 'He undertook "P" company seven times, such was his determination to be a para. Surely he has earned the right to a military rehab.'
An MoD spokesman said: 'The decision to care for military patients within specialist NHS units was driven by medical advice - the severity and complexity of modern military injuries requires immediate access to the highest levels of specialist medial and nursing care, which can only be found in a few large hospital complexes in the UK, such as Birmingham.'
A spokesman for University Hospital Birmingham Trust, which includes Selly Oak, said: 'While we can not comment on individual cases the type of injuries that soldiers sustain and that we treat are very complex - therefore their pain control is very complex.