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We are still not 'a land fit for heroes'

Published 19/08/2015

British soldiers on operations in Afghanistan
British soldiers on operations in Afghanistan
Mourners pay their respects as the bodies of troops killed in the conflict pass through the town of Wootton Bassett after they were repatriated

There is a huge difference in the way ex-servicemen in Britain are treated compared to those of other nations. Military historian and author Richard Doherty says it's now time for that to end.

About three miles west of Letterkenny in Co Donegal lies Conwal Cemetery. James Duffy VC of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, decorated for valour in Palestine in 1917, was buried there in 1969. Close by Duffy's grave is a US official headstone for a local man who died a year or so before him.

The US Second World War veteran was buried by the US Government. In contrast, James Duffy VC's headstone was paid for not by a grateful UK Government, but by the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers' regimental association.

Those two headstones point to a major difference in attitudes to veterans in the UK and the USA. Duffy may have died in an independent former Commonwealth country, once part of the UK, but he had been a British soldier and was still recognised as such. But there are many other aspects of this difference.

In the United States the Veterans Health Administration maintains dedicated hospitals and medical centres right across the USA. Anyone who has completed a full year in the US forces is entitled to a military funeral, with a bugler, flag-draped coffin and official headstone: there is no cost to the family. Witness that headstone in Conwal Cemetery.

In many other ways both nations differ in their treatment of veterans. A friend on holiday in the USA recently experienced one example at an airport. When passengers were being called to board, the priority classes included senior citizens and veterans.

Nor is the USA the sole country treating veterans so differently. Australia and New Zealand have attitudes and practices similar to the Americans, while closer to home France accords special respect to its veterans, especially those injured and maimed 'pour la Patrie'.

More than a quarter-of-a-century ago I was shocked when a Second World War veteran told me, and others, that there should be "no such thing as the British Legion".

When I argued for the work of the Royal British Legion (RBL) his response was this: "If the Government had kept its promises to us and our fathers for a 'land fit for heroes' there'd be no need for the Legion."

And of course the RBL was born out of the failure of Government in the wake of the First World War to properly look after injured veterans. It was the work of Field Marshal Earl Haig and others that led to the birth of the then British Legion in 1921.

Kipling once wrote of the British public and its Government's attitude to the soldier: "For it's Tommy this and Tommy that, an' chuck him out - the brute!

"But it's saviour of 'is country when the guns begin to shoot."

It has taken a long time for the image of that Kipling poem to fade although ex-servicemen and women can still be quite cynical about the Government's attitude. In the recent past, however, there has been much talk in the UK about the Military Covenant. This followed publication by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2000 of the document Soldiering: The Military Covenant. Acknowledging that service personnel "forego some… rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces as they place the needs of country, the forces and others before their own", the MoD suggested that they could expect respect from the nation and their commanders, plus fair treatment, and support and reward for themselves and their families.

Has this Covenant actually taken root and grown? While the Government and MoD would have us think so, recent history suggests that political enthusiasm may have waned.

In Opposition David Cameron was a supporter, even establishing a Military Covenant Commission chaired by Frederick Forsyth and including Simon Weston OBE, one of the nation's best-known injured veterans.

Before the coalition came to power in 2010, there had been some interesting developments. Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff from 2006 to 2009, was a strong Military Covenant advocate (perhaps that's why this very capable soldier didn't become Chief of the Defence Staff?).

In 2007 the RBL began a campaign accusing the Labour Government of reneging on its Covenant commitments, criticising the practice of treating wounded personnel in wards alongside civilian patients. Although Health Minister Alan Johnson guaranteed priority NHS treatment for injured veterans, Cameron accused Labour of breaking the Covenant.

The following year, in a case taken by ex-Gurkha soldiers seeking the right to settle in the UK, a judge noted that granting residence would be an enhancement of the Military Covenant.

Shortly after Cameron entered No.10 in 2010 there were reports that the Military Covenant would be enshrined in law. Such legislation would allow service personnel to sue the Government for any breach of the Covenant, overturning centuries of tradition.

In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, the coalition decided not to make the Military Covenant the subject of legislation. Instead it would be covered by an annual report to Parliament. An Opposition attempt to overturn that decision failed.

Would a Military Covenant written into law provide any great benefit for service personnel and veterans?

We might see enhanced medical support, perhaps better support for families, assistance with housing, education and finding work after discharge. But something on the American model is highly unlikely.

Legislation seems improbable from a Government that has been cutting back the armed forces and pruning some of what the sailor, soldier or airman once enjoyed. Food has to be paid for when not on operations. Pensions are to be changed in line with other public service pensions. Even married quarters may be under threat.

However, public attitudes to the forces are probably more favourable than for decades. Kipling's image may at last be fading. The Wootton Bassett factor has helped and there is little doubt that a more formal Military Covenant would be well received throughout the UK.

Although the real responsibility lies with the politicians, the public leads on this. And it's worth remembering that a Military Covenant would not be entirely new.

Some may remember when many job advertisements noted that 'ex-service preference will be given' but such treatment for veterans, especially those injured in service, harks back to the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth.

In the late 16th century parishes were obliged to pay a weekly tax for the relief of soldiers injured in war. The fund supported the wounded, but was also intended to encourage others to follow their example and fight for their country when needed.

A Military Covenant enshrined in law would rhyme with that Elizabethan statute. Is there anything new under the sun?

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