Shock toll of British injured in Afghan war
Sunday Aug 19, 2007
The human cost of the war in Afghanistan to British soldiers can be revealed today as figures show that almost half of frontline troops have required significant medical treatment during this summer's fighting.
In a graphic illustration of the intensity of the conflict in Helmand province, more than 700 battlefield soldiers have needed treatment since April - nearly half of the 1,500 on the front line. The figures, obtained from senior military sources, have never been released by the government, which has faced criticism that it has covered up the true extent of injuries sustained during the conflict.
The Ministry of Defence releases the number of soldiers taken to hospital, a fraction of those who require treatment on the battlefield. The new figures relate to the number of soldiers patched up and sent back to the front line and who do not appear in official casualty reports.
By contrast, US official figures take into account soldiers treated on the front line. In their figures, wounded troops include those away from the front line for 72 hours or more.
One British army official said the 700 cases include a 'handful' of officers who suffered injuries and chose to carry on fighting. The injuries include shrapnel wounds, cuts, burns, acute heat stroke and diseases such as 'DnV' - diarrhoea and vomiting that can incapacitate a man for days. Of the 700 cases, 400 combat troops were described as being so ill they were forced to 'lay down their bayonets'.
The number of soldiers requiring front-line treatment was discussed at military briefings in Helmand during intensive fighting this month and relate to the current deployment, which began in April. An army spokesman said official casualty figures between April and the start of August stood at 204, with about half stemming from the battlefield.
Military sources said the willingness of soldiers to carry on fighting while suffering was indicative of the bravery being routinely displayed.
'The courage of the soldiers has been remarkable. Many are getting patched up and just want to get on with it. Most do not want to leave their comrades,' said the source in Helmand. Last week, details were released about how 26-year-old Captain David Hicks, of the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment, refused morphine after being mortally wounded by shrapnel so he could keep a clear head to lead his men. He later died of his injuries.
The MoD said the figures should not be confused with its published 'casualty' figures, claiming that cases treated by frontline medics often related to minor ailments and complaints that were not considered life-threatening or serious. The spokeswoman went on to say that, in serious cases, troops were not given the option to carry on fighting.
However, the number of serious injuries is rising. A spokesman for the British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association said that 27 British soldiers had lost limbs serving in Afghanistan and Iraq during the past 12 months.
The frenetic nature of the conflict in southern Afghanistan is underlined by the fact that many young infantrymen intend to leave the army because the firefights they have survived in Helmand could never be surpassed. In terms of soldiering, the conflict has offered some of the most intense fighting for 50 years, with two million rounds of ammunition so far fired by British forces.
'You could be in the army for decades and you will never get anything like that again. Will it be bettered? I can't see it,' said one soldier. Commanders are understood to be concerned that the Helmand conflict could precipitate an exodus of combat troops who feel military life will never offer the same challenge again.
Campaigners have frequently argued that British troops are paying a higher price on the battlefield than has been made public. Casualty figures are expected to rise in the coming months as the current tour, from April to October, finishes, when regiments that have experienced the brunt of fighting push on to gain ground before they leave.
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