Sod this for a game of soldiers

Observations on the army

Earlier this month, two stories cast doubt on the ability of the Ministry of Defence to care for those in the armed forces who are ultimately responsible for the safety of the British people.

First, it was reported that British troops in the 1991 Gulf war were given anthrax vaccinations without official safety guidelines being followed. This coincided with the declaration by an independent investigator that most of the bullet wounds suffered by four soldiers who died at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002 were "highly unlikely" to be self-inflicted, throwing doubt on the army's claim that they had committed suicide.

Past experience suggests that veterans and relatives will have an uphill struggle to achieve justice in either case.

The announcement from the MoD confirmed that Gulf war soldiers were given multiple jabs with other vaccines, despite the product licence stating "the vaccine should be used alone".

Meanwhile, the UK authorities continue to deny the reality of "Gulf War Syndrome" among the 53,462 troops who served during the first war against Iraq. They have not been willing to collate evidence on the medical records of those involved, although similar evidence from the United States reveals that, 12 years after the conflict ended, 8,000 US soldiers have died, 125,000 are registered disabled and another 253,000 are on medical care. In other words, 31 per cent of those who served are dead, seriously ill and/or receiving medical attention.

Professor Malcolm Hooper, chief scientific adviser to the Gulf Veterans' Association, calls the UK's failure to investigate "criminal negligence". Meanwhile, the available anecdotal evidence suggests that British troops are just as ill as their American counterparts. Larry Cammock, chairman of the GVA, who served as a reservist, said in March this year that from among just three units, covering 1,680 troops who were in Iraq, "245 now have heart conditions".

The latest announcement adds to the veterans' bitterness. According to Professor Hooper: "The anthrax vaccine was not given appropriately; however, none of the vaccines administered in the rush to the first Gulf war were administered with compliance to the established protocols, so that this led to a massive, acute and chronic adverse health response in many Gulf war veterans."

Nor does it seem that any lessons have been learnt. For the second Gulf war, multiple vaccines were given in defiance of established protocols. We know that some soldiers had six vaccines in one day. Eleven are suing the MoD and 83 people have contacted the veterans' associations with their health concerns.

Meanwhile, the report by Frank Swann, an independent investigator hired by the families of Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson to examine the forensic evidence surrounding their deaths, is also causing anger, casting doubt as it does on the official explanations of what happened at the Deepcut Barracks.

In Benton's case, Swann agreed with Surrey Police's claim that it was possible that two bullet wounds had been self-inflicted, but "highly unlikely" that three on the torso were. In Collinson's case, Swann accepted that it was possible that bullet wounds to his chin and head were the result of an accident, but he thought it "unlikely". In the cases of Cheryl James and Geoff Gray, aged 18 and 17 respectively at the times of their deaths, he concluded that it was "highly unlikely" that the bullet wounds to their heads were self-inflicted. Surrey Police has been forced to postpone the release of its findings while it studies Swann's submission.

Even if it eventually transpires that the four young soldiers did take their own lives, it remains an appalling indictment of the armed forces, indicating that they are unable to recognise when young men and women in their care are failing to cope with the pressures and at risk of suicide.

If the MoD acts carelessly towards those still in its employ, it is totally unconcerned about former soldiers once they have left. A survey undertaken by the homeless charity Shelter in 1997 revealed that 25 per cent of those sleeping rough used to be in the forces. Many who fought in the South Atlantic in 1982 have suffered a great deal more since the event than during it. Those Falklands veterans injured during the war were denied full disability pensions because of a government decision to call it an "armed conflict" and not a war.

By the beginning of this year, the number of UK ex-combatants who had fought in 1982 and subsequently killed themselves was 225, equal to the number killed during the war.

When members of the armed forces are praised by politicians and the media for their bravery and patriotism, they should enjoy the moment. For they cannot expect it to be translated into a lasting legacy of concern and care for their well-being. As Jim, an ex-soldier who served in the Falklands, told me: "They only care about soldiers when we are fighting and nothing else." He added: "Once we stop doing that, we are quickly forgotten."

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