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The hidden cost of Britain's Afghan war?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 28 July 2009

More than 50 British soldiers have lost limbs in conflict in Afghanistan, latest figures show. As two more British soldiers have died in southern Afghanistan, taking the recent death toll to nine in nine days.

British soldier with leg injuries from Afghanistan. Reuters

The compensation system for injured British soldiers should be overhauled, a leading support group said today.

The demand comes as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) goes to court to cut the compensation offered to a pair of soldiers injured in Afghanistan.

Light Dragoon Anthony Duncan, who walks with crutches after being shot while on patrol in Iraq in 2005, was originally awarded £9,250. The sum was increased to £46,000 by an appeal tribunal.

Royal Marine Matthew McWilliams, who fractured his thigh in a military exercise, was awarded £8,250, which was increased to £28,750 on appeal.

The high court upheld the higher awards, ruling that the MoD argument that there should be a distinction between the original injury and later complications was "absurd".

The MoD is taking the case to the court of appeal, where its lawyers are expected to claim the two soldiers should be compensated only for the initial injuries and not subsequent health problems.

“On the principle of compensation clearly there needs to be some sorting out as to whether it relates to the injuries sustained at the time, or the consequence of those injuries in later life. That needs to be addressed,” said Jerome Church, general secretary of the British limbless ex-service men's association (Blesma). Mr Church himself lost a leg in service in Northern Ireland.

Mr Church’s organisation has dealt with more than 50 British soldiers who have lost limbs in conflict in Afghanistan. The grim total, combined with the current death toll of 191, is drawn from the type of combat soldiers are engaged in, said Mr Church.

Roadside bombs and gunshot wounds are the key reasons why British soldiers are returning to the UK with horrific injuries, he warned.

He said: "We are dealing with a lot more multiple amputations than we were 20 years ago, and that's because of the types of explosive devices that the soldiers are facing.

"It used to be more common for leg amputations to just be below the knee on one side - such as I had - but now it can be much more serious. Multiple loss.”

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed in April this year in response to a parliamentary question that 51 British personnel had undergone amputations after suffering injuries in Afghanistan.

Blesma has worked with 48 of the amputees, as well as six others who lost the use of limbs, and seven others who lost eyes. Twelve of the amputees suffered multiple limb loss. Around 75 per cent of amputations relate to leg injuries.

Church said: "Of course, we see a spike in the number of injuries when the operations intensify. These types of injuries do increase in volume when there is an increase in activity, and we hear there are three or four more we will be meeting some in Selly Oak [the military hospital].”

Poor equipment and a lack of helicopters has been blamed for Britain's growing death toll, but Church said it was not a complaint he heard very often from amputees.

He said: "Most soldiers that we talk to think that the armour they have is okay. There is always a trade off between being mobile for combat and having lots of armour on, and they have to make that decision.

"We had a guy who had been injured in a tank before – so what can you do?"

Soldiers who suffered significant injuries are awarded compensation under the MoD's Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, which it is currently reviewing. They undergo rehabilitation in military hospitals at Selly Oak, Birmingham, and Headley Court in Surrey.

Church added: "We talk to the soldiers about the life ahead, and we can hep cheer them up a bit, but it is clearly not easy. It is a long term process and obviously something they have to live with for life."


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