Military covenant: what military covenant?

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by Peter Thomson

The Royal British Legion have been having a go at the ConDems with respect to their failure to meet their responsibilities as a government to the men and women they put in harm’s way.  The RBL is deeply concerned about government indifference to the high number of homeless ex-service personnel, the levels of those imprisoned for violence, and the high rate of suicides amongst service and ex-service personnel compared to their civilian counterparts.  A recent BBC Panorama programme told a chilling tale of government indifference towards ex-service personnel over the decades, but focussed mainly on the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is not just the ‘squaddies’ that suffer from this indifference, it is non commissioned officers (NCOs) and officers as well.  The only advantage that officers and NCOs have is that they are better equipped to fight the MoD and the Veterans Agency.  Most will be well aware of the duplicity of both organisations.  This is where the story gets personal.

I was commissioned as a sub-lieutentant as a dental surgeon in the Royal Navy in 1977 and promoted to full lieutenant on qualification in 1979.  My first posting was to HMS Osprey at Portland which was the home of RN fleet training, RN observer training and the Lynx squadrons.  It was a busy first posting.  One duty weekend Friday in early 1980 I was in the sick-bay when over the Tannoy came the announcement that a helicopter was down, medical team to stand by, ambulance and resuscitation team to the airfield.  The reality was that there were no survivors.  A Wessex 3 had plunged 500 feet into the sea two miles off Portland Bill.

In the back was my flatmate, Greg, who had decided to take a trainee who was struggling with observer training up for a ‘last chance’ flight to pass to the next stage.  A mine-hunter quickly found the wreck and a salvage boat from Portsmouth lifted it off the sea bed on the Sunday.  I had to stand by in case dental records were required for identification.  In high speed impacts such as this, the helicopter’s three ton rotor head and gearbox tend to end up squashing everything between them and the surface of the sea.

Greg’s body was not in the aircraft.  The tail had broken off and with the currents off Portland Bill the consensus was he would be on his way to Alderney.  He liked sailing there at weekends, and we agreed that would make him very happy.   So in the way of the ‘Service’ we got drunk, had a good laugh and reminisced, then got on with the job and our lives.  If you can’t take a ‘joke’ you shouldn’t have joined.

For many in Civilian Street that would be enough on its own to put the call out for trauma counselling, but we just accepted it as just one of those things.  Military flying is dangerous and accidental death is part of the reality of ‘life in a blue suit’.

1982 saw me on active service in the Falklands.   My role was to identify the dead using dental records prior to their repatriation to the UK, or to forward dental records to the Red Cross so the Argentinians could identify their dead.  Sadly most of the Argentinian conscripts did not have dental records so out of 250 records sent to Geneva there were only 50 identifications made.  Of course I also lost friends in the conflict and in my makeshift portable surgery on board MV British Tay in San Carlos Water, I listened to friends and patients telling me about what they had seen and experienced.  The strange dichotomy of being a Royal Naval dental officer was that patient confidentiality remained the rule; so we were part of the informal ‘counselling’ system.   We had been given rudimentary knowledge of counselling as part of our training as triage and resuscitation officers – but of course, there was no one to listen to us.  Peace time did not mean the end of friends dying in training accidents.  January 1983 saw another good friend killed by a tragic piece of miscalculation by a commando survival training staff member in Norway.

Yet if you had asked me how I felt, I would have shrugged and come out with the mantra of ‘life in a blue suit’.  If I had been honest – I would have told you about how tense and shaken I was: but not in those words.  I would have told you the story of how a friend and I, when shopping for Christmas 1982, had ended up taking cover in the doorway of Debenham’s when a car backfired.

The problem with ‘Battle Fatigue’ or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is that most sufferers in the services pretend it is not happening to them and so work hard at being ‘normal’.  In my case it took ten years to get to the point that I could not do ‘normal’ anymore and then everything collapsed at a rush.  To complicate matters I had been involved in a helicopter winching accident in 1980.  The accident caused soft tissue damage to my neck which was exacerbated by the high volume and stressful work load of an NHS dentist and in 1992 it seemed to be the main problem.

Ah well, you think, there is the ‘military covenant’ to fall back on, isn’t there?

It all started when it was clear that I could not return to dentistry because of increasing side effects of my neck problem.  You would not fancy having a dentist poking around in your mouth with no feeling or grip in his fingers.  I had paid into the NHS superannuation scheme so I should be entitled to the benefits.

Well … no.

According to the NHS they would only give me a proportion of my entitlement as the injury had occurred during my service in the Royal Navy.  I should be pleased that they were willing to offer me a third of my full entitlement and the difference would have to be made up by the War Pensions Agency (now the Veterans Agency).  Oh no, said the War Pensions Agency.  Our medical experts say if you had not been working in the NHS your neck would not be in the state it is in and we will only give you our assessed payment for the particular disability of 40% of the War Pension entitlement, and then only out of the kindness of our hearts.

The ins and outs of gaining my proper pensions weaved their way through the Chancellery Court (1996) to force the War Pensions Agency to play ball over my disability.  Having gained a judgement in my favour I could now take on the NHS Pensions system.  The NHS tried every dodge in the book not to pay in the hope I would give up, even telling me the Secretary of State had disallowed any further appeal.  Luckily I had kept a copy of every letter and reply I had received or made since 1992 and at Christmas 2001 sent the whole lot off to the Pensions Ombudsman.  In January 2002 he sent a letter to NHS Pensions to ask them to reconsider as he was going to sue the ‘bejayzus’ out of them on my behalf and by March 2002 they had settled out of court.  Ten years to the day after my original application for an NHS Pension.

Crazily the Veterans Agency turned down my recent claim for PTSD on the grounds that I had not made the original claim within the ten year limit of leaving the services.  To be honest, I have had enough off fighting the system and with my full NHS entitlements are more than comfortable, but what if I was a ‘squaddie’ back from Afghanistan with a P45 in my hand, unemployment staring me in the face, undiagnosed PTSD and this is how the system treats you?

Crime and violence could well seem justifiable – because clearly the Government and country does not care: not so much a ‘military covenant’, more – ‘systematic abuse and neglect’.