Debt of gratitude, duty of care
20 May 2008
For many in defence, there is a focus on delivering the best possible capabilities to the front line. This is represented by a huge element of articles in DMJ, and not surprisingly so. After all, it is unfair to send a soldier, sailor or airman into theatre without giving them the ability to do their job properly. But does this class as comprehensive support for Service personnel?
Perhaps a key question to consider is what happens after? You are a soldier on the front line, you have the best equipment money can buy, and you want for nothing in terms of logistical support – ideal to be sure. But then you return from the front line, come to the end of your final tour of duty and retire as a veteran. Support at this stage is arguably just as crucial.
There are many issues of consideration in relation to support for veterans, from care for the injured and disabled, to Armed Forces pensions, to the basics of integration into society once leaving the Armed Forces. Indeed, many such issues have been covered in past editions.
The Government does claim to consider support for veterans to be vitally important, and quite rightly so. Indeed, cited by Chris Simpkin in the November 2007 edition of DMJ, General Sir Mike Jackson once said: "Our soldiers pay the cost in blood; the nation must therefore pay the cost in treasure."1
However, it has been suggested that support for veterans in some areas can, on occasion, be found wanting.
One example is a recently publicised case regarding Porton Down veterans, who were used for tests during the Cold War. Over a span of 50 years, hundreds of Service personnel were subject to 'tests' at Porton Down, where they were infected by forms of the sarin nerve agent, originally used by Nazis during the Second World War. Many subjects claim that they have suffered ill health as a result for the rest of their lives. After a prolonged dispute between the Government and affected parties, the MOD has now agreed a settlement with veterans. In a Parliamentary statement on 31st January 2008, Derek Twigg, under Secretary of State for Defence, and Minister for Veterans commented on the situation.
"The Ministry of Defence has, for some months, been in discussions with solicitors representing a group of Porton Down veterans regarding compensation claims arising out of their participation in the programme of trials undertaken at the Chemical Defence Establishment during the Cold War", he explained. "I am pleased to report that an amicable settlement has now been reached with respect to these claims. This settlement is without admission of liability by the Ministry of Defence and involves the payment of a global sum of £3m in full and final settlement of all claims made by the group."
He continued: "The Government have, in the past, made clear the debt owed by the nation to those who took part in the trials at Porton Down designed to ensure that the United Kingdom had the defensive and deterrent capabilities to counter the real and horrific threat that chemical weapons would be used against our Armed Forces or civilian population, as they had against others; the security of the country rested on these trials and the contribution of those who took part in them."
Twigg concluded: "The trials were, in many cases, conducted under considerable pressures of time as new threats emerged. The Government accept that there were aspects of the trials where there may have been shortcomings and where, in particular, the life or health of participants may have been put at risk. The Government sincerely apologises to those who may have been affected."
According to a legal representative, veterans are now happy with the settlement, and it was accepted unanimously by all concerned. Alan Care, who acted for many veterans, said: "I think this is a good deal for them. A lot of veterans wanted the apology – the money was an add-on. I would commend the MOD at this point, be it late in the day."2
Healthcare in general is, of course, a key concern in supporting veterans. This is something the MOD, along with the Department of Health, has been delivering on of late. In November 2007, it was announced that there would be significant improvements in support for veterans who had developed health problems as a result of military service, with ministerial announcements confirming a priority service for veterans whose ill health or injuries were suspected as resulting from service. It was also confirmed that veterans suffering from mental health problems, which include conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder, would receive better care. This would take the form of a new model of community mental health services, giving veterans access to clinicians with expertise in veterans' mental health and with the ability to provide effective assessment, and assist veterans in obtaining suitable treatment.
Derek Twigg said: "I am delighted to launch the first pilots of this new community mental health service for veterans. The new community health pilots will be staffed by qualified mental healthcare professionals who have an understanding of the military ethos and military operations, and an expertise in veterans' mental health. This will assist them in providing the best standard of care to our veterans."
Health Secretary Alan Johnson also commented on the improvements for veteran healthcare: "Our Servicemen and women do an outstanding job, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude and a duty of care, particularly those who have developed health problems as a result of their military service", he said.
"Under long-standing practice, war pensioners have had priority NHS access, but that has not always been fully understood. I want to make sure that everyone understands the current provisions and expand the eligibility for priority treatment in the NHS to veterans who may not yet have claimed a war pension. I am also pleased to announce new plans to help all veterans whose mental health problems result from military services."
Johnson continued: "Together with the MOD, we are today launching the first of a number of community mental health pilots specifically for veterans, recognising that some will have mental health problems as a result of their work in the Armed Forces, and we need to provide an expert service capable of understanding and responding to the particular problems that can result."
Of course, only a small portion of current issues affecting veterans is represented here. Minister for Veterans Derek Twigg is responsible for numerous other matters, such as war graves, medals, memorials, commemorative events and prisoners of war, and indeed, there is a huge array of other areas for consideration. However, to conclude, it is imperative that effective support is provided for veterans. Members of the Armed Forces risk and often sacrifice their lives, and so giving them the support they need on leaving the Services, whether that be in providing healthcare, homes or work, is vital.
1 'Honouring the covenant', Defence Management Journal, Issue 39, November 2007.