As they always seem to, the explosion erupted out of nowhere. One second there was nothing, the next a ballooning cloud of dust and grit, heat and noise, shrapnel and pressure enveloped the soldier and he disappeared from view. The force of the detonation climbed up his body at supersonic speed, shards of metal hacking and tearing at the soft surfaces of his body, ripping into limbs, puncturing the torso, catching his helmet and pulling it violently from his head, the chin strap offering only token resistance before being torn away.

Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT)

Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT)

In the immediate moment following the blast, the casualty’s shocked colleagues tried to gathered their rattled senses. Then they came to help, their priority, their only aim, to keep death at bay. To apply bandages and tourniquets, tend the devastated injuries and plug the wounds, essentially to stop the man bleeding out, losing the fluids that sustain life.

Although terribly hurt the young soldier is still conscious, aware that around him a small army of others are helping him cling to existence and reacting to his moans and murmurings.

“Its ok mate – you’ll be fine – we got you buddy – just hold on – just stay with us – fight mate”.

The words are encouraging but the façade of optimism is paper thin, those who are tending the casualty continue to reel from the horrific revelation of what a weapon of war can do to one of their friends. Now it becomes a matter of time. The blood can be staunched but the real work falls to the professionals: the doctors and nurses. And to get to them the helicopter is needed.

And there in the debris and the dirt of the battlefield, as he awaits evacuation, the soldier is becoming aware of how seriously he has been hurt.

“I can’t see.” The voice is pitiful, a whimper, a noise like a child might make, “Please help.”

“Its ok mate I’m still here, I won’t leave you” the young infantryman’s best mate reaches across and takes hold of a hand, squeezing it lightly, an act of gentleness and compassion, that hides a terrible fear for his pal’s future.

For so many years now, rarely a day passes without some miraculous, uplifting story appearing in the media about how a member of the armed forces has come to cope with so-called life changing injuries incurred in the backstreets of Basra, or the Helmand Green Zone. Yet many forget those who received terrible injuries in The Falklands, Aden, the troubles of Northern Ireland and the many peace keeping operations around the world such as Bosnia and Kosovo.

Compassion and dignity and the ability to live a full life.

Compassion and dignity and the ability to live a full life.

Some of the victims of war have soared to great success: climbing, skiing, exploring, completing rallies and becoming Olympians. Many others have simply returned to some sort of normality thanks to the medical and technological breakthroughs born of conflict. Prosthetics are state of the art. Mental distress has been recognised and is treated. But so far no one has invented a cure for the sightless. Thus far, losing the ability to see is essentially irrevocable, and deeply traumatic. While the activities of such charities as Help for Heroes, Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion is wonderful and admirable perhaps some of the most critical and challenging work undertaken with scarred ex-servicemen is provided by Blind Veterans UK.

Formerly know as St Dunstan’s the organisation was established in 1915 to cater for the avalanche of soldiers returning from the trenches, robbed of their vision. Its aim was to give training and assistance to this particular group of veterans so they could eventually lead as productive a life as possible without further charitable support.

Those who received – and continue to receive – are categorised only on the basis of need. It matters not how or where people have been afflicted by blindness, be it on the battlefield or Salisbury Plain. It is enough for them to have worn the uniform of this country whether in time of war or peace, as a national serviceman, conscript or modern volunteer.

The ethos of the charity is clear and simple: that no ex-serviceman or woman should suffer their disability alone. If losing their sight is the greatest dread of many soldiers, sailors and airmen, then Blind Veterans UK is the saving grace.

Long after the battle is over. As the uniform is hug up for the last time, there will always be those who will dedicate themselves to support our veterans who have given so much for their country.

For you and me the question is simple, ‘what can we do to support those who support our vision impaired service veterans’.

So start by clinking on and find out what Blind Veterans UK does and how you can support them.

Help creating hope for the future

Help creating hope for the future

The young infantryman is no longer there, but thanks to @BlindVeterans there is still someone to hold the veterans hand, squeezing it lightly, an act of gentleness and compassion, ensuring dignity for those who lost their sight in the service of their country.



You turn on the TV news and there, somewhere after a report on the credit crunch and before the footie, you get the other stuff, events in brief, the stories they haven’t got pictures for or don’t think are important enough to warrant two minutes all to themselves.  Amongst these fillers you hear the presenter say, ‘A British soldier has been killed in action in Afghanistan after being hit by a roadside bomb’.  Killed in action.  KIA.  It all sounds so unsentimental, so impersonal, so clinical.  But its’ not.  It is usually brutal and bloody and painful.  So here it comes, the wretched truth about KIA, a truth you’ll never hear, let alone see, on News at Ten.  This is what KIA is all about.


This was the time a British soldier stood on an IED, an improvised explosive device, a roadside bomb.  It wasn’t clear whether it was the heal of his boot that made contact first, or the sole, or perhaps he was already springing off his toes and well into his next stride when the weapon that he trod on killed him.  It doesn’t matter, for any of these scenarios would have set off the same catastrophic chain of events.

As the weight – several stone of the soldier, and a few more of his equipment – came to bear on the track, it also fell on the part of the bomb that would trigger the explosion.  Just below the surface, encased in a motorcycle inner tube to keep them free of dirt and moisture, were a pair of old saw blades: one connected by wire to an electrical power source, a pack of six domestic batteries; the other attached by a different wire to a Russian mortar shell. The blades were wedged apart at each end by a piece of wood.  In this configuration the blocks acted like a circuit breaker, preventing the flow of electricity, keeping the system inert.  With the soldier’s full weight now coming down inexorably on the top blade, it buckled and bowed in the middle, then made contact with its twin beneath.  And that was that.  The circuit was complete and a current started to flow, at the speed of light, from battery, via the saw blades to a detonator.  In turn the detonator was connected to a booster charge, which in itself was hooked up to the mortar shell.

The weapon could have lain there for days, a week, a month.  It might have been there for a year or more.  Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered to the bomb how long it had gone undiscovered.  It had no feelings, no sense of time, no memory, only and endless patience it wasn’t aware of.  But now its moment had come.  It was about to do the one and only thing it had been created for.  Wreak death on the enemy of those who had first dug the hole for the weapon to sit in and then carefully buried it, hiding all signs of the earth having ever been disturbed.

In that most routine and instinctive of movements, walking, the British soldier had sealed his fate, self-selected himself as a victim.  And the life for his family was about to be irrevocably altered.  Shattered beyond recognition.  Not that they knew it yet.  Though, it seems, he probably did.

Because even as he was completing his step, as events were about to unfold beneath him out of sight, he suddenly stopped as if he suspected something.  Had he already seen something, felt something not quite right through the rubber sole of his boot?  It was as if he already had an inkling of what he’d just done.

But by now it was way to late to alter the course of history.

The chemical reaction going on inside the mortar shell was rapidly generating an extreme amount of pressure and heat – as much as several hundred tones per square inch of the former and anything between 1,500 and 2,500 degrees Celsius of the latter.  It was all happening so fast – unimaginably fast – and it had become impossible to turn the clock back; things had already gone far beyond the point of no return.  Yet for a few more milliseconds there was still no outward sign of the impending disaster.  Because at that precise moment the destructive power was still, just about, being contained within the shell.  The original makers of the shell had been ruthlessly exact in their calculations.  They hadn’t wanted all the heat and pressure to burst out too son.  No, they’d designed the casing to be strong enough to resist its own demise for as long as possible – long enough for the force of the imminent explosion to have reached its absolute zenith.  And only then did it break free.

The mortar disintegrated into a million pieces of metal that hurtled away from the seat of the blast.  There would be no dodging them.  Not at the immense speed they were travelling – as much as several thousand meters per second.  The fragments were followed by the blast wave.  It radiated from the epicenter of the explosion even faster than the splinters of the bomb casing, at a velocity many times the speed of sound.  For good measure there was a heat wave too.  And a hell of a lot of noise.

Because the mortar had been buried only just below the surface of the track the soldier had been walking on, most of the energy was funneled skywards, following the path of least resistance, up through the thin veneer of the Afghan desert.  It took with it bucket loads of dirt and grit.

In the moment the explosion mushroomed clear of the ground, both the soldiers’ legs were shredded.  It was as if someone had furiously rubbed them up an down a giant cheese grater, not stopping until the white of the bone was clearly visible through the bloody, ragged remains of human tissue.  If the soldier had had the chance to take in what was happening to him, then he might have been tempted to count his blessings, pleased at least that both his lower limbs remained anchored to the rest of his body.  But he would have been wrong to do so.  Already they were useless to him; indeed they were hardly recognisable as legs.  There was little or no skin left to speak of, and much of the mass and most of the definition of the muscle had gone too, hacked off by supersonic, super-sharp pieces of twisted metal.  That which remained had become blackened in places – charred, seared by the extreme temperature that accompanied the blast.  The torn remnants of skin and uniform had been similarly singed.

As the cuts of human meat, some minuscule, others the size of a hand, were hacked off the bone, other fragments of the bomb now buried themselves deep inside the ragged flesh that remained.  They also tunneled into the man’s thighs and groin, peppering the muscle.  For good measure the billowing cloud of dust then further contaminated the wounds.

The blast wave continued running up the length of the victims torso, forcing its way under the body armour, eventually tearing it off.  The two removable, protective ceramic plates worn to protect the front and back of the armour had already been blown from their pouches, and now, as projectiles, they had become part of the problem rather than the cure.

By this stage the soldiers weapons had been ripped from his right hand, then the hand and the arm were flayed as the legs had been.

As the blast reached his head, it got beneath the rim of his helmet and forced it off, the chinstrap offering only limited resistance before giving way.  There was also massive damage inflicted on the mans throat and jaw.  A large piece of shrapnel – or maybe it was the plate off the body armour – had torn out his voice box and smashed his chin.  A fold in the skin now hung limply from his cheek.  Even if he had wanted to call out for help, to scream in pain, he wouldn’t have been able to do so.

There was also the damage done that you’d struggle to see.  The force of the explosion had caused serious internal injuries.  The soldier’s eardrums burst.  So too did the blood vessels in his eyes.  His lungs probably collapsed as the blast wave rippled through his body.  By now he was no longer in contact with the ground.  Instead, he and his barely attached limbs were sailing through the air, tumbling, turning, before crashing back to earth.  He was flung a good ten meters from the point of detonation.

The very worst thing of all was that – despite everything – he was still alive.

Eyes rolling; trickles of blood seeping from his ears, nose and mouth; torrents of thick red blood pumping from at least three severed arteries; he was still alive.

And conscious.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the medic did a heroic job trying to treat the soldier, applying tourniquets, inserting a drip, giving morphine.  And then it was a case of clock watching, waiting for the MERT helicopter to arrive.  Knelt down alongside the casualty, the medic held on to the soldiers remaining good hand, offering what comfort he could, reassuring him everything would be alright.  Except it wouldn’t.

Because twenty minutes after he had detonated the bomb, the soldier succumbed to his horrendous injuries, the lifeblood finally drained out of him into the dust.

The brutally dispassionate message went out over the radio ‘UK Bravo now KIA’

That’s is the reality of Killed in Action.  For some, death comes mercifully quickly. But for others dying is an agonizing, lingering, terrifying experience.  Their last on earth.

Now, where were we? Ah yes.  How did Chelsea get on against Man Utd.



I know what it is like to look down the barrel of a gun held be my supposed colleagues. In 2008, my men and I were held at gunpoint by soldiers of the Afghan National Army while some of their associates turned weapons on an insurgent we had captured during a fire-fight. Seconds later the prisoner was dead, cut to pieces by 7.62 rounds from the Kalashnikovs our allies used to mete out their rough justice.

Taking an enemy prisoner

Murder of enemy prisoner

But we were incidental to proceedings. The target was the prisoner not us. We were being kept out of the way while the ANA vented their lethal fury on their true enemy. These days’ things are rather different in Helmand and beyond.

If you take a forensic look at the growing spate of Green on Blue incidents – or as ISAF now like to call them, ‘Insider Attacks’ taking into account the Afghan attacks on other Afghans that we don’t regularly hear about – you will come up with various reasons.

At the moment about 10% are directly attributed to insurgent activity, with perhaps the same number again suspected of being enemy related. But the rest are rather more mundane: cultural clashes and personal grievances for example, also the effect of events that might be taking place far beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

The release of the ‘Innocence of Islam’ and the consequent storm of protest and outrage it unleashed is a case in point as was the accidental burning of pages of the Koran earlier this year.

The tensions led to sensible precautions being taken such as the limiting of joint Coalition-Afghan patrols at local tactical level and now at the strategic level. Yet is not the step backwards some have portrayed it, instead it is the development of an ongoing campaign.

Cultural sensitivities.

Previously a company-level risk assessment would be carried out before any military patrol which involving Afghans forces took place. This would need to be signed off by the Battle Group (Battalion). Now, on the orders of the Commander ISAF, that level of scrutiny has now been given another layer.

Now the initial assessment will still be conducted by the company and then passed up the chain of command as before for scrutiny. But now it also needs the rubber-stamping at Task Force level.  A ‘no’ might arise if a major political or cultural factor was identified at national or even global level that could inflame tempers at the micro-level. Such was the case with the film.

The reality for British forces is they don’t work at Battalion level; instead they work at the company level spread out all over the central populous belt of Helmand.  So in essence they will continue to partner and mentor the Afghan security forces in exactly the same way as we did previously but with more oversight by commanders with an eye for the bigger picture.

To say there have been catastrophic events in Afghanistan recently is indisputable. But as ever, context is all. Despite the picture the media are tempted to portray of a coalition crumbling, these attacks – especially where they are driven by the enemy – mark points on an evolving landscape and potentially the move from one phase of the campaign to another, just as in 2008/9 the proliferation of IEDs increased dramatically and two years later the enemy switched to the targeted assassinations of government officials.

Some may find this hard to swallow, but the Coalition forces and the Afghan Army and Police have made major gains in the last couple of years and the strategy of partnering Afghan security forces is working.

We forget that half of Afghanistan is now under Government security force control. The strategy to hand over the remaining areas by district and province is still well on track and the effectiveness of the Afghan Army increases day by day.

The Afghan Police are still less developed than the Army but that may be due to their mentoring only really beginning in any coherent way in 2009 – three full years after the programme with the Afghan Army began.

Our Afghan partners.

Of course we need to train Afghan forces so that they can determine the fate of their own country. Selfishly, the quicker we do this then the quicker we can withdraw. And the better the Afghans are at their jobs, the easier our departure will be. We need the Afghan forces

My Afghan counterpart.

to provide time and space to allow an orderly pull out rather than a humiliating, ragged, fighting withdrawal with all the British casualties that will entail. For that reason the mentoring must continue, despite the risks.

The Olympic struggle, every day of every year for the rest of their lives.

If the roots of the Olympic Games can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks, then the Paralympics is of rather more recent vintage and its origins lie rather closer to home; in Buckinghamshire, to be precise.

For it was in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital that Dr Ludwig Guttmann, an expert in helping rehabilitate injured service personnel, especially those with spinal injuries, organised an event for those hurt during World War II. The first International Wheelchair Games coincided with the start of the now last-but-one Olympics to be held in London. The rest as they say is history and by 1960 in Rome Dr Guttmann’s vision had evolved into the inaugural Paralympics. The 400 disabled participants came from all walks of life and were not just injured servicemen.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann

But here’s the irony. Given the genesis of the Paralympics it will surprise many, and shock some, to learn that just six members – two per cent – of the current Great British team are from the armed forces.

To be blunt, it isn’t as if there isn’t a deep pool of prospective talent. Since the start of 2006, 281 UK personnel have been categorised as being very seriously injured in Afghanistan. 289 others seriously injured. Before ‘Afghan’, was Iraq. For Operation Telic the figures were 73 and 149 respectively.

Most of these people will have been young, extremely fit, immensely courageous and steely-willed. And as an organisation the military puts sport very much at the heart of their activities and they support all abled and disabled service personnel achieve the highest levels possible in numerous sporting activities.

So why will so few of them be competing in 2012? Is the MOD disinterested and failing to carry the flame for an institution it itself helped bear and nurture? Or is there something else that precludes participation of the very people one would want on the team sheet?

Despite first sight of the evidence it is probably the latter.

The numbers demonstrate the balance of casualties have occurred in the last half decade or so. Advances in equipment and battlefield medical provision mean that many of these troops survived injuries which in previous conflicts they would not. Yet it also means more soldiers, sailors and airmen than ever before are left facing the future with life changing injuries, a euphemism for terrible wounds which require years of treatment. Many have lost one or two limbs, brain damage, loss of sight and groin injuries are also common. The road to some degree of adequate recovery is long and arduous.

Occasionally it is all but impossible. Demonstrating the difficulties a good friend and close colleague was seriously wounded in 2008 when his vehicle went over an IED, this would have been as the last Paralympics was coming to an end. Four years later he still wears a cage around his left leg, shattered by the blast. Even now there is no guarantee that he will not lose the limb but his fight is no less a fight than those chasing Olympic glory.

Clearly there are wounded colleagues who notably and publicly achieve immense feats of endurance: reaching the poles, trekking to Everest, learning to ski, sail and cycle. They are truly inspirational role models, but for the majority of those who have been hurt the challenge is not to travel to the ends of the earth or to climb mountains, but simply to get to the end of the road under their own steam or ascend the stairs in a home designed for the unimpeded. Their lives are not moulded by four-year training cycles but constant hurdles over which they must leap merely to reach the end of each day.

Nor is youth, for those who possess it, a single-edged sword, for their bodies continue to mature. Cleaved bones keep on growing.

Recovering from catastrophic injuries

None of which is to say that future Paralympics teams will not be packed with service people. But first, almost to a man, those with injuries want to stand on their own two feet. The great depths of pride and courage they possess drive them on to try and regain their independence and, crucially, to regain their place in the military family as equals.

Winning a gold medal is one thing, retaining the admiration and respect of colleagues is quite another. And it is these things which the professionals at the MOD rehabilitation centre at Headly Court focus on, helped on by the immeasurable contributions from charities like Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and the Army Benevolent fund just to name a few.

For once a soldier, always a soldier and nowhere is this best demonstrated than with Lance Corporal Ben Parkinson.

Horrifically maimed in 2006, Ben carried the torch through his home town of Doncaster ahead of the able-bodied games, not from a wheelchair, but walking tall as a soldier who serves in the British Army. And he is not alone; the number of soldiers who return from operation in Afghanistan without limbs yet fight to stand with their colleagues to receive their operational medals is also inspirational.


The motto of the Paralympics is ‘Spirit in Motion’. It could be said that Ben and his colleagues exemplify this sentiment day in day out, not just every four years.


The deaths in #Chamonix. One man’s experience of climbing #MontBlanc – the pinnacle of Europe

Many will have read the news that several people have been killed on Mont Blanc. I am posting this article by my good friend Philip Gomm in the hope you will be as interested in it as I was.

“The news that at least nine climbers have been killed on the slopes of Mont Maudit is tragic.  For me it also brings back memories of an intense experience on the same slopes just under a year ago. I have also made my way up the precipitous north-eastern flank of the mountain on my way to the summit of Mont Blanc. Unlike all those caught in this morning’s avalanche, I made it.

The reason the ‘white mountain’ has its name is blindingly obvious. It is snow covered. All year round. And the reason it is snow covered is because it is so high. At 4,810 metres – 15,782 feet – it is the tallest mountain in Western Europe.

Many of the attempts to reach the pinnacle of the continent – though in reality, it is more of table top, a wide ridge, sloping gently to each side, perhaps fifty metres long – take place in the summer months when the days are longer, the temperatures warmer and the weather more benign.

But it that warmth that leads to the problems: melting snow and exhausting conditions. Not that it isn’t sometimes ferociously cold and windy up on massif, even in July and August. My own initial summit bid was cancelled after my colleagues and I were forced to spend two days and two nights holed up at 3,613 metres at the Cosmiques Refuge after snow, gales, thunder and lightening essentially closed the mountain and prevented the cable car up from Chamonix from running to the nearby Aiguille du Midi. (They say travel light on Mont Blanc, but my advice is to sacrifice something else before you leave behind a good book.)

Descending the Aiguille du Midi Arete.

When the weather eased we retreated to the safety of the valley to prepare for another bid a few days later when the conditions stabilised.

Second time round we again used the Cosmiques hut as base camp, hitting the sack at around 9pm. There followed a few sleepless hours, caused by a mix of tension and excitement, interspersed with the shuffling and occasional snoring of scores of other climbers who also had their eye on the glistening prize.

We – myself, my colleague Nick, and brilliant local guide Pete Mason from the Chamex agency – were up by 1am. By 1.30am we were out of the door, the first team to escape the claustrophobic conditions of our accommodation. There was nothing oppressive about the landscape outside. The night sky was alive with stars and in the brightness – enhanced by the reflective properties of the snow-covered mountains – we set off, using our head-torches not so much for route finding but to identify any sneaky crevices which might be laying in wait as we strode first across the plateau and then started the breath-sucking, energy sapping ascent itself.

To get to the top of Mont Blanc from this starting point (another route is from the Gouter hut which we had intended to use but was closed by a massive landslip) you need to partly circumvent two satellite peaks: Mont Blanc du Tacul and the now infamous Mont Maudit. Doing so involves cresting two shoulders before starting the slog up to the top of Mont Blanc itself. As is ever the case with mountaineering, progress upwards is never continuous. For every bit of height gained, there is always some that then seems to be lost. Two steps up, one step down.

We remained roped together for the entire enterprise, but it was the climb up to the ridge of Maudit which, though relatively short, was the steepest and most technically difficult part of the challenge, made just a little easier by a number of fixed ropes and slings. Certainly it was on this section that you could understand why there are front points on crampons.

Although getting a flying start is essential to having the best possible snow and ice conditions underfoot, it also means you don’t have to queue. Whilst witnessing nothing like the line of climbers pictured on Mount Everest earlier this year, there are a couple of bottlenecks where you would rather be the first to arrive than the last. The Maudit ridge is one of them.

On top of Mont Blanc

At about 7am we reached our goal. Taking a breather on the top of the continent, there was opportunity to look up rather than down at one’s feet – which had been the routine for the previous five and a half hours – and soak in the heavenly sky, splashed as it was with a glorious spectrum of colours: red, orange, crimson, ochre, dapples of white where a touch of cloud had intruded. The gathering light made the 360-degree views truly awe inspiring. Knowing that there was no one higher than you for several thousand miles in all directions was a spiritual feeling even for a confirmed agnostic.

Yet reaching the top was only half the journey. There was the return, not just to the hut but beyond to the cable car.

Going down was an interminable process. Once more, change in height was not linear, the ups and downs of the terrain sapping what little energy was left, the only consolation being that almost all the way down we passed people still on their way up. I did not envy them their task. Rising temperatures not only increased the risk of avalanches, it also turned firm conditions underfoot into a slushy, shifting morass. Then there was the heat. Even 4,000 metres up, the warmth of the rapidly rising sun soon became very uncomfortable.

It was the last hour of the ‘descent’ that was the worst. Once clear of Monts Blanc, Maudit and Tacul you face a slog across the plateau. For the first half-mile or so it is generally flat, but the last half a mile up to the Aiguille du Midi is torture. A gentle slope turns into a shoulder and then there is a knife-edge arête which needs to be negotiated before you are ‘home and dry’. You do these last few steps literally under the noses of hundreds of tourists who have journeyed to the Aiguille to get a better view of Mont Blanc (and you) but sensibly have no intention of climbing it.

In ‘normal’ conditions it is easy to think that to achieve an ascent of Mont Blanc it is merely necessary to overcome your own perceived limitations. But today’s events show that whatever your physical prowess, you only ever manage a safe passage because of the benevolence of the mountain.”

On #ArmedForcesDay remember those relegated to 2nd class citizens by the Armed Forces Covenant

When the Prime Minister announced that the Armed Forces Covenant was to become a legal provision it was a much applauded step. The headline was simple and achievable:

The Government recognises the need to do more to ensure our Armed Forces, veterans and their families have the support they need and are treated with the dignity they deserve. The Armed Forces Covenant, published today, sets the tone for Government policy aimed at improving the support available for the Armed Forces Community.”

The then-Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox said:

“We believe that a sensible way forward, that will give the right kind of legal basis to the Armed Forces Covenant for the first time in our history, is to enshrine the principles in law, provide a regular review of the policies that will make them a reality, ensure that Parliament has a chance to scrutinise this review through the annual report, and that the report itself is widely informed, consultative and transparent.

“Our understanding of the Covenant will change over time, as will the way in which Government and society meet it. The framework we have set out today provides the flexibility we need so that not only the Government but all of society can fully pay the enormous debt they owe our Armed Forces, their families and our veterans.”

Thanks to the hard work of the Royal British Legion, the MOD et al the promises encompassed in Liam Fox’s statement have been delivered to many people; but unfortunately not to all.

In England, Scotland and Wales members of the forces ‘family’ are reaping the benefits of the Armed Forces Covenant  as well as the associated community covenant which sees local-level committees concentrating on the particular problems they face including the  lack of appropriate housing for service leavers, education and job opportunities as well as health which, while not unique to them, are more prevalent than in society overall.

The aim of the Community Covenant Grant Scheme is to financially support projects, at the local level, which strengthen the ties or the mutual understanding between members of the Armed Forces Community and the wider community in which they live.

But as we mark another important Armed Forces Day it is worth asking whether we are really applying the same rule for all members of the service community or just in areas where it is convenient to do so?

For though the covenant has been enshrined in law by the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, as well as in Westminster, the story in Northern Ireland is somewhat different.

For here the Covenant is not properly recognised and has not be adopted by the Stormont Assembly. The practical problems of delivering an adequate Armed Forces Covenant to the 75,000 service personnel, veterans and their families residing in the country are swept under the carpet, sidelined as apparently too difficult for any politician either here or in London to tackle. The Royal British Legion does what it can but their day is the sun in respect to the Covenant is over; it is now government institutions which must drive it forward.

For those who fought the awful conflict on the island – inadequately referred to as The Troubles – there is a feeling that they are neither supported nor wanted; their only crime to have served selflessly in an appalling situation, the formal conclusion of which saw no one stepping forward to offer thanks on behalf of a grateful nation. Not that everything is peace and quiet even today. Some 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement men like me continue to check under their cars before they drive to work or switch off their kitchen light before they enter at night so as not to make themselves a target for dissident republicans.

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century theatres of war in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan have only swelled the numbers of those from all sides of the Irish community and so-called sectarian divide who need real help to come to terms with disability, be it mental or physical.

Fundamental to the difficulties faced in Northern Ireland are the residual impacts of something that was close to civil war. Key amongst them, the isolation many service people and their loved ones endure. Trying to reintegrate into a society where being a soldier is something you barely acknowledge, let alone express with pride, has a detrimental effect on your own self-worth after many years service.

For all the recent smiles at Stormont when Martin met Liz there remains a strained security situation and a tribal culture that has yet to completely give way to harmonious co-existence.

The tensions are not just felt by soldiers of Irish extraction: The Rifles currently stationed at Ballykilner on the beautiful County Down coast or the Mercians encamped in Holywood, Belfast, find themselves in an alien world. It is not a wild exaggeration to say that some of wives and children of these British troops will rarely if ever leave the confines of the bases.

A working covenant in Northern Ireland would help address this dreadful situation by addressing the unique situation Northern Ireland finds itself in. But there is no such thing. For the same tensions that cleave Northern Irish society, and are still felt by those associated with the military, are also present in the body which runs the country.

The present assembly government works on power sharing which effectively allows any political group to veto any controversial proposals. If one side does not want to implement – indeed, even talk about – something the other suggests then they have the right to dismiss it. And that is what has happened with the Armed Forces Covenant.

So how to break the deadlock? Well this is a party political question and all sides of the assembly are looking at ways of increasing their kudos with the electorate. As yet none have found a way to break the impasse, Westminster has little appetite for the problem and the Royal British Legion are happily leaving the whole issue to someone. And who can blame them?

Yet, as a simple soldier, a man from the community working with and for the community, the answer is very simple.  It only requires the same moral courage as the Queen demonstrated when she shook hands with a former IRA commander or a similar courage exhibited by Martin Guinness who accepted the proffered magisterial hand despite the negative symbolism many of those on the Republican side associate with it. This last statement is not an easy thing for me to say but as a soldier I have learned to understand my enemy better than most.

So what am I really suggesting in this blog? Well to reduce to it’s very bare bones I am saying the service community in Northern Ireland, be they indigenous or from Great Britain, all fight and die for Queen and Country the same way as soldiers from England, Scotland and Wales. Yet they do not receive the same recognition, the same funding, the same acknowledgment of the difficulties they face on a day-to-day basis.

In an ideal world national politicians should have the moral courage to fight for what is right and get the covenant put into action as it was intended in all corners of the UK, or else amend it to meet the special power-sharing scenario we have in Northern Ireland. Until that happens paralysis will reign, condemning soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought and still fight for their country to remain second-class citizens.