Blair accused of treating vets like, well, like Bush does....

January 19, 2005
Blair and his ministers accused of walking away from war wounded

By Michael Evans and David Lister

TONY BLAIR and other senior Cabinet ministers have been criticised by opposition parties for failing to visit soldiers wounded in Iraq and repatriated for medical treatment.

The Times revealed yesterday that 790 British service personnel had been injured in “hostile action, accidents or other incidents” in Iraq since the war started in March 2003.

The Liberal Democrats demanded an urgent statement to be made by Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary. But Michael Martin, the Speaker, turned them down.

Downing Street confirmed that the Prime Minister had not been to see any of the wounded undergoing operations and other treatment at the Royal Centre of Defence Medicine at Selly Oak, in Birmingham, where injured soldiers are taken.

Patrick Mercer, a Conservative defence spokesman, said he was astonished that ministers had not made frequent visits to the hospital.

Mr Mercer, a former army officer, said: “I think it’s extraordinary that Tony Blair and other senior members of the Government, such as the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Defence Secretary, have not regularly visited the hospital.”

As The Times reported yesterday, Mr Hoon has paid one visit, in April 2003, while the Iraq war was still under way, although most of the serious injuries have occurred since the combat phase of the campaign ended on May 1, 2003.

General Sir Mike Jackson, the Chief of the General Staff, went there in September last year.

Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, who also expressed surprise at the low number of ministerial visits to the wounded, said that he wanted to ask Mr Hoon whether the figure of 790 injured was higher than the planning assumptions for casualties made before the war began.

He also said that the figures, and the names of the injured, should have been released to MPs, because Parliament had voted its approval for the war.

“I’m sure MPs would like to visit injured soldiers from their constituencies,” Mr Keetch said.

The family of a Yorkshire paratroop who nearly lost his life after he was shot in the head in Iraq said that the MoD had barely contacted the soldier since his repatriation. Damien Mason, 21, had to have emergency brain surgery after the helicopter he was in came under fire in June 2003.

The paratroop, who has spent nearly two years on sick leave and has not been told whether he has a future in the Army, has spent eight months in hospital and has now developed epilepsy.

Bill Barker, his stepfather, said: “Tony Blair, Geoff Hoon, none of them — they never visited the lad, never saw the lad, never phoned the lad, never wrote to the lad.”

The paratroop’s family was told that he would die after his helicopter came under fire in al-Majar al-Kabir, and the British field hospital he was transferred to said that his wounds were too serious to operate on. Mr Barker from Hunmanby, North Yorkshire, said: “They told us he wasn’t going to make it.”

The MoD said that the total number of people evacuated from Iraq for medical reasons since February 2003 was 2,762. However, this figure included service personnel who had been flown back to Britain for minor injuries, such as back problems and sprained ankles, the MoD said.

Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP and Father of the House, has tabled a Commons question about the numbers wounded and the various categories of how seriously people have been wounded.

“There is a big difference between having two legs amputated and a black eye,” he said. “I also want to know how many, within the total, have suffered psychological damage.”

When Mr Dalyell was asked whether he thought that the MoD had deliberately given a low profile to these statistics, he said: “I am prepared to answer ‘yes’ to that.

“I have asked about this in speeches before and have been given no specific answers.”

Mr Dalyell said he also proposed to raise this issue during the debate on army personnel in the Commons tomorrow.

An MoD spokesman rejected suggestions of a cover-up, insisting that the injured figure had been available to anyone who asked.

“We do not issue it proactively, often at the request of the people concerned, but also because if a person is eligible for redeployment it could endanger them,” he said.

The MoD was unable to supply accurate figures for the number of Armed Forces personnel who are now receiving disablement pensions arising from injuries suffered during their service in Operation Telic, the codename for the campaign in Iraq.

Keith Simpson, the Shadow Defence Minister, said: “I think the public will be surprised and shocked to learn how many British servicemen have been seriously wounded in Iraq.

“Quite rightly our attention has focused on those servicemen who have been killed and the impact on their families, but these injured servicemen must not be airbrushed out of our collective memory.”

Officials said that the Veterans Agency kept figures for all those who had served in the Gulf who were granted pensions. However, the statistics did not distinguish between those who had served in the Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq war in 2003.

“Nor do the figures show whether their disability was caused as a result of service in the Gulf or from some other operation or incident,” one official said.

The Veterans Agency said that from 1991 to September 2004 about 2,800 Gulf veterans had been awarded disablement pensions.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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