Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Antagonising the local population

Soldiers get killed in wars – we all know that and accept it. Sometimes, they die because other people make mistakes, or make bad decisions. That we can also accept. Officers and NCOs have to take decisions and what makes their jobs so very different is that if they get it wrong, sometimes people die.

In those cases, it is tragic but it is still part of war. In many cases, all it needs is for someone to take responsibility, admit they got it wrong and say they're sorry.

But the Army isn't like that. To outsiders - and especially the relatives of soldiers who have been killed – everyone in the military is perfect. Nobody makes mistakes. Every death is an "accident" or "unavoidable". And if you ask questions, it is you who are wrong, you who are made to feel guilty and you who are made to feel you have to apologise for doubting what you are told.

That is how I've been made to feel about the death of my son, which for me is bad enough, but so many relatives have been through the same thing, and it goes on to this day. It will keep happening until the Army accepts that relatives are human beings as well, and are entitled to get the truth, and the whole truth about how their loved ones died.

What makes this especially topical is the recent inquest of Michael Tench (pictured), the youngest soldier to die in Iraq, reported in the Northern Echo.

From this, we found out that the original information given to Michael's mother, Janice Murray, was completely wrong. And in an experience that completely matches mine, she complained that, "No one from the Army could be truthful regarding the injuries my son sustained or exactly his cause of death."

When my son Phillip was killed in Iraq, the notifying officer told us that Phillip had been killed instantly. But he was lying. Two days later, we found out from Sky News that he had been badly injured but had died of his injuries at the roadside. Only when we checked back with the Army were we told that this was true.

It is only natural then that we wanted to know what my son's injuries were, but here I hit a brick wall. The Army could not, or would not tell me. It took four months to get some details, when I finally received a report. This was all I was to get prior to the inquest, and we only obtained this after I went on the local television station and asked them to help.

In that report, it stated that Phillip had difficulty breathing before he died so, I was not any better informed. Then I heard, to my horror from another soldier that Phillip had been screaming for me at the side of the road. Imagine the nightmares that gave us and it was not until the inquest in January of this year that we finally leaned the truth and the nightmares stopped.

Phillip had not been screaming. He had injuries to his throat and small blast injuries which had peppered his body. We also learned that a protective neck collar was sitting in the stores. This would more than likely have saved Phillip's life and other soldiers who have been killed with the same injury. We asked about the collars but the Army response was that Phillip would not have been able to drive with this collar on. Yet it seems standard issue for the American troops.

But, to our outrage, we discovered that the report on Phillip's inquest file had been completed on the 31st August 2005. We had been made to wait 18 months for the Inquest and only then were we allowed to learn what the Army had known all that time.

What also shook us to the core were other details in the report. We knew from Phillip, who had been home on leave only weeks before he died, that he and the other lads were worried about the Snatch Land Rovers and the lack of protection. And we also knew from him that there were the heavier, Warrior armoured vehicles at his base in al Amarah.

But, from the Army report, we found out that, "although Warriors were sometimes used", they were "recognised as antagonising the local population". Therefore, Phillip and the other two soldiers who died with him were sent into a dangerous areas of the town, in poorly protected vehicles, simply not to "antagonise" the local population.

It beggars belief that our son died because they didn't want to upset or wake the locals at night. I am sure the bomb did this. The safety of our soldiers should come first before the "hearts and minds" of the local people.

What is more, although we had the Inquest (from which we learned very little), there was never a Board of Inquiry regarding Phillips death. We asked why this was and received a letter telling us that they were the experts and nothing could have been done to prevent the "accident". So according to the British Army three soldiers killed by a terrorist bomb is an accident. Does this mean that all terrorist bombs are accidents?

We have also been told that no investigation will ever take place into the deaths of three soldiers that night. When they did try to investigate at the scene they were told that it was extremely dangerous and they had 20 minutes to get it done. We have all seen on the television the police at crime scenes when they investigate for days to try and piece together all the evidence. Yet 20 minutes is sufficient for three soldiers deaths. So, sadly, the people that murdered our sons will never be caught.

By contrast, our government seems only to pleased to try and convict our soldiers of any offence and spend millions of pounds in doing so. I would have the utmost respect for any MP that would go to Iraq and go out on routine patrols in a Snatch Land Rover and see if they felt they were amply protected. Surely if these vehicles are good enough for our soldiers they are good enough for visiting MPs.

Try and imagine what our soldiers suffer when they go out on patrol. Next time you have a car journey of say two hours or more think that the terrorist know who you are because you wear uniforms. They don't wear them, so you don't know where they are or who they are.

You are driving along knowing that any person you see could be a terrorist waiting to kill. It could be the next junction, roundabout, traffic lights that they are waiting. They have planted roadside bombs but you do not know where. If you are unlucky, you will pass that spot. No wonder so many soldiers come home with post traumatic stress.

This is what Phillip had to deal with, and he was unlucky. But he was not only a soldier. He was also our son, and we have produced this tribute for him. To the Army, though, it seems he was just a number, and we are a nuisance. They must learn that they are dealing with human beings.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

No equality in death

Few readers will be unaware that, yesterday, the Queen unveiled "the first ever truly national memorial dedicated to UK Service Personnel who have lost their lives since the Second World War".

Described on the MoD website, the memorial – located in the 150 acre woodland of the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire - has almost 16,000 names engraved on its huge Portland stone walls, with space for 15,000 more, "a poignant reminder of the cost of the freedom and democracy enjoyed in the UK".

As mother of Phillip Hewett, who was killed so tragically in Iraq in July 2005, I with my husband - along with other bereaved families - were invited to the unveiling. We have been to Alrewas many times but this time, as you would expect, numbers were limited.

But, it seems, even with bereaved families, there is no equality in death. After being told that each family could only have two tickets, however, we found that other families had four. This, I thought was more than a little unfair as my father who had himself served for 17 years in the Army. Had I not phoned up to inquire about more tickets, he would have been disappointed but, as it was, I was used to the way of the authorities. I managed to get another ticket.

When the tickets arrived, they were coloured green. This had no particular meaning for us, but we were to find out that colour was everything. We began to learn this when I inquired about parking at the arboretum. I was asked whether my tickets were "red or green". Then, I found out that for "greenies", there was no parking – even though I was also giving a lift to parents of another soldier killed in Iraq, one of whom was disabled,

Even then, the penny had not fully dropped. It was not until the night before the event when I was phoned by a father of another lad that the official "colour prejudice" became clear. He told me that had red tickets and had been told to park at Alrewas itself. When we got there, us "greenies" had to go to some distance to a "park and ride" area and were forced to wait for a bus for the last part of the journey.

It was at the arboretum, though, that we really began to feel the effects of our colour. Us lesser mortals – that we were – were herded off to a green-coloured marquee, to be given plated sandwiches to eat while standing, while the "reds" wined and dined in the comfort of a fully equipped dining area.

The "reds", we found, were classed as VIP guests. We, the "great unwashed", were fenced off from them in a completely different part of the site, allowing the "reds" to meet the Queen and prime minister and other guests. And while they had freedom to roam, we - as befitted our second-class status – were herded from place to place like cattle.

As one of the parents said to me, "how many children do you have to lose to be classed as important the officers and their wives - the people who had lost nobody?".

For all that, when we actually came to look at the monument, I felt quite disappointed. It was not the work that had gone in to the structure, but the way the dead had been treated. There were no ranks and no regiments - just a list of names, like out of a school register. I do not know what I expected but it was not what I saw.

I know that was not alone in feeling disappointed in the way we were treated. We were never given the chance to meet the Queen or anyone in the privileged "red" section. All we saw of Her Majesty was the rear of her Bentley as it disappeared down the drive after the ceremony. Everything was geared to making us feel like second-class citizens. Even when we got on the coaches to depart, priority was given to those with red tickets. It was a sad day made even sadder by the exclusion of all the families involved.

Of course, the suspicion is that people like myself, who have spoken out about the way our troops have been treated, and several other families who speak out – members of the "awkward squad" - were kept as far away from the VIPs as possible.

The affair had to be "sanitised" and us rabble had to be kept from polluting our betters. We were tolerated as "extras" for the TV cameras and the press, on the day – and we were allowed to send our sons to die for the nation – but we must still know our place.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

My battle begins

My name is Susan Smith and, on the 16th July 2005, my life changed for ever. My only son was killed in Iraq when a "Snatch" Land Rover he was driving was hit by a roadside bomb.

His name was Private Phillip Dale Rimes Hewett. He was in the Staffordshire Regiment and died alongside two of his friends. When I looked at the face of Phillip lying in his coffin I felt a sadness that I can not describe.

But since that time I have put all my effort in to finding out why he was in a "Snatch" at all. The Army knew they would not be of any use against an IED. I was told that they used them so as to not upset the locals. Since that time 20 other soldiers have died in these Snatches. Yet, at the time, there were 43 Warriors in the camp but they chose not to use them.

Phillip was owed a duty of care and was badly let down by a government that sent him there to do a job asked of him.

And so my battle begins.