Sunday, 14 October 2007

We need some more answers

Rightly, The Sunday Telegraph is devoting considerable space today to the results of its investigation into the number of Service personnel who have sustained serious injuries as a result of enemy action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has discovered that 47 Service personnel have had limbs amputated, lost the use of arms or legs or lost eyes since 2003. Of those, 30 servicemen have lost legs, four of whom suffered double amputations, five have had arms amputated, two soldiers have lost the use of limbs and 10 have also lost eyes.

What spoils the whole exercise, however, is that we do not get any indications of how those servicemen actually sustained their injuries. The focus, as always, is on the care and rehabilitation of those injured (and their compensation). This is worthy and necessary but it leaves that huge and vitally important gap – the pressing need to prevent soldiers sustaining such injuries.

As we have so often before articulated, it is absolutely essential that some effort be directed to that end. Care and compassion for the injured is fine but we would much rather have soldiers fit and healthy than receiving the best care in the world for injuries that were wholly avoidable.

But so far divorced from this imperative is The Telegraph that it has not even begun to addressing this issue. Instead, it is actively – if unwittingly – misleading its readers. In its editorial backing up its investigation, it refers to the now celebrated Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson who, says the paper, lost both legs and suffered brain damage from stepping on a mine in Afghanistan.

We know this to be untrue. Parkinson was the rear gunner in a WIMIK Land Rover when he sustained his terrible injuries which, we aver, could have been prevented had he been crewing a better-protected vehicle.

This points up the comment made by Liam Fox in last week's procurement debate, in which he complained of the many "who make a false distinction between procurement and welfare issues."

"Procurement is a welfare issue," he said. "For our servicemen and women and their families, there are few issues as important as whether they have the equipment to maximise their safety and ensure the success of the tasks that they undertake in our name."

One MP who has been attempting to track down the link between WIMIK Land Rovers and the mounting toll of injury is Owen Paterson who, during the Summer recess, put a number of pointed questions to the Defence Secretary on the issue. In particular, he asked:

…how many WIMIK Land Rovers issued to British forces in Afghanistan were written off in each of the last three years; how many were written off as a result of (a) accidental damage or mechanical failure and (b) enemy action; and how many written off as a result of enemy action were the subject of mine or improvised explosive device strikes.
This was the answer from Armed Forces minister Bob Ainsworth:

Since the deployment of weapons-mounted installation kit Land Rover vehicles in summer 2006 to Afghanistan, a total of 19 have been lost as a result of operational use. Those losses have occurred either as a result of direct enemy action or denial operations by UK forces where vehicles have been extensively damaged (either through enemy action or accidents) and cannot be recovered.
Paterson then asked how many personnel in Afghanistan had been seriously injured or killed while crewing WIMIKs, and especially through mine/IED strikes.

Again the answer was fielded by Ainsworth, who replied that as of 10 September 2007, five personnel have been killed from "an explosion due to enemy action." However, he then went on to say:

The number of service personnel injured in incidents involving WMIK Land Rovers is not recorded centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.
This latter assertion is outrageous. If the Army is not collecting injury figures by cause and type – to assess potency of the enemy actions, the efficacy of force protection measures, and to determine whether any enhancements are needed – then it is being criminally negligent. And, of course, if the data are being collected, then the minister is lying.

However, putting the Telegraph and the data from the questions together, we can have a stab at assessing the bigger picture. We have 19 WIMIKs lost from "operational use" – each with a crew of three (but sometimes carrying four). Five have been killed in the incidents where loss occurred, of a minimum "at risk" group of 57. But how many of the 52 "not killed" were badly injured?

Well, we know Ben Parkinson was one and we know of an incident in September where two were killed in one vehicle. It seems highly unlikely that the third crew member escaped with light injuries – to say nothing of the interpreter who was also in the vehicle.

Then there was the Kandahar incident, also in September, with one soldier and an interpreter killed. The other two soldiers were injured – but how badly?

Another one we know of is the incident in July, which killed Guardsman Neil "Tony" Downes. Four others were injured in the incident – which also involved an "exchange of fire" with the Taliban. How many were seriously injured?

One other, of which we know, happened in December 2006, where one Royal Marine was described as "seriously injured", yet here the vehicle may not even have been written off.

These, however, are just WIMIK incidents. To those we must add Pinzgauer Vectors and "Snatch" Land Rover losses - the latter exceeding the WIMIK number. Tenuous though it may be, therefore, it does not seem untoward to suggest that of the 47 Service personnel which the Telegraph reports to have had "limbs amputated, lost the use of arms or legs or lost eyes", the largest single proportion of that figure arose from crews of inadequately protected vehicles.

Of course, if the MoD came clean about quite how many soldiers had been injured in these vehicles, and the extent of their injuries, we would not have to be guessing. Small wonder that the MoD does not want to release the figures, but all the more reason why the media – and Mr Fox – should be pressing for some more answers.