British Treatment of Injured Soldiers Questioned

In the 1990s, Britain's conservative government began shutting down Britain's military hospitals. Today, Military casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are being treated at public hospitals around the country. The treatment they receive has been the source of controversy.

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During the 1990s, with no ongoing military conflicts, the British government began closing its seven military hospitals. Care of military casualties was integrated into the British National Health Service. That's the system of free health care funded by taxpayers that's available to all Britons. Now with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more British troops are being wounded and the lack of hospitals to deal specifically with military casualties is being criticized.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: In 2003, Scott Garthley was posted to Iraq with the Territorial Army, the British equivalent of the National Guard. As the war began, Garthley was injured in an explosion and airlifted back to Britain. Since there are no longer any military hospitals, Garthley was taken to a large public hospital.

Mr. SCOTT GARTHLEY (Wounded Veteran): Immediately when I was wheeled in, a member of staff asked me to remove my uniform in case I offended somebody. And that came as the first immediate shock. The second was when we were taken to the exit of the emergency room, along with all of the other drunks on a Saturday night, was given a cursory examination by a registrar, then handed a walking stick and told to go home and see my family doctor - no transport, in the middle of the night, no medical care.

GIFFORD: Garthley subsequently has had to have 17 operations, all at his own expense, because he says if he'd waited for treatment through the National Health Service, or NHS, he would have had to wait for months for the operations. He now lives on a government pension of $130 a month and has decided to sue the Ministry of Defense.

His story and other similar cases have caused a storm in Britain, along with newspaper reports of incidents in NHS hospitals. Last month, the Daily Telegraph reported that a badly injured soldier was verbally abused by a Muslim visitor who accosted him about the Iraq war on the public ward of an NHS hospital, where the soldier - like all casualties now - was being treated among civilians.

Former military leaders, such as Field Marshall, Lord Bramall, have joined the criticism.

Field Marshall Lord EDWIN BRAMALL (British Army, Retired): Well, I do have very great concern over this, because when you hear of all the stories, well-collaborated, of the poor aftercare for wounded soldiers, including the Territorial Army - the long waiting lists, the stretched medical facilities, and some patients really almost lost in the system - I'm convinced that the government has not done enough to care for our soldiers in the way that they ought to be cared for.

(Soundbite of hospital noises)

Dr. SUE SINCLAIR (Anesthetist, Solihull Hospital, Birmingham, U.K.): This is (unintelligible), one of our trauma wards. And as you can see, we're walking past a military physiotherapist. He's talking to one of our NHS nurses about one of the patients in the ward. There's a mixture of military and civilian personnel in here.

GIFFORD: Sue Sinclair is an anesthetist at Solihull Hospital in Birmingham, one of the main hospitals where military casualties are brought. Sinclair says that there can always be problems in any system, and that there may have been a few at Solihull. But she's furious at the way she says the treatment of the military casualties has been misrepresented in the British press.

Ms. SINCLAIR: It's a brouhaha that (unintelligible) journalists create very well. It's completely irresponsible, because it's actually a force for bad, because the - it does have a demoralizing effect on the staff. I also think it's outrageous that our troops are being inappropriately frightened. They're reading this nonsense in the media which, you know, and then being asked to go out and fight for their country, being given the impression, by some very irresponsible people, that they're not going to be looked after if they fall in harm's way. And it's outrageous.

GIFFORD: Sinclair says she does not believe, for instance, the Daily Telegraph story last month of the paratrooper who was allegedly verbally abused on a ward, supposedly at her hospital. She says the hospital has been unable to confirm the incident took place. Both she and Major Claire Dutton(ph), senior military nurse for intensive care at Solihull, say casualties receive much better treatment in an NHS hospital that they ever would have done at a specific military facility.

Major CLAIR DUTTON (Senior Military Nurse, Solihull Hospital): The difference with what we've had, bringing soldiers back to a civilian hospital, is that they get a multitude of specialties that we wouldn't have been able to offer them in a military hospital. The staff also gain a multitude of experience that is pertinent to their operational role, that again, we wouldn't have been able to give them in a military hospital, because we didn't receive the (unintelligible) of casualties.

GIFFORD: With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly unpopular among the British general public, the treatment of military casualties has become something of a political football that has only added to the furor.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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