Care for Injured British Troops Is Faulted

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 12, 2007

LONDON, March 11 -- British troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are receiving appalling care in British hospitals, according to families who have made complaints similar to those leveled against Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"We gloriously see them off to war and then neglect them when they come back," said Phillip Cooper, whose son, Jamie, 18, is a soldier who was severely injured in a mortar attack in Iraq in November. "They lay down their lives for their country, then they get treated appallingly."

Detailing a long list of problems in a telephone interview, Cooper said his son's colostomy bag has twice been allowed to overflow, forcing him to lie in his own feces. On one occasion, Cooper said, he and his wife changed the bag themselves after nurses on duty at the Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, Britain's principal medical center tending to wounded soldiers, said they did not know how.

"We didn't mind doing it -- he's our son -- but we shouldn't have had to," Cooper said.

Allegations of poor care for British service members were first reported Sunday in the Observer newspaper, which quoted from several letters of complaint sent to the Defense Ministry by families of the wounded. The letters alleged that troops had suffered from a lack of basic medical care, including some who had been deprived of adequate pain medication after wards ran out of supplies.

"They are not getting what they expect, nor are their family members getting what they expect," said Sue Freeth, welfare director for the Royal British Legion, which represents 450,000 service members and veterans. Freeth said many soldiers are waiting 18 months or longer for critical mental health care services, which she called "a national disgrace."

"It's just unacceptable to have substandard care for those who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country," said Liam Fox, a Conservative Party member of Parliament who specializes in defense issues. Fox, a physician, said in an interview that he planned to raise the issue with Defense Minister Des Browne and in Parliament. Browne told the BBC on Sunday that an investigation was underway in Jamie Cooper's case.

"Where there are individual cases that fall short of the very high standards that I and others demand, then we need to address these and I will address them," Browne said. "They are unacceptable."

The army's top medical officer and a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair played down the complaints.

"In a survey this year of military patients undergoing treatment at Selly Oak they all rated their treatment as excellent, very good or good," Lt. Gen. Louis Lillywhite, the military's surgeon general, said in a statement. Lillywhite said the military would investigate complaints of poor care, "and if we need to do things better, we shall."

Blair's spokesman said in an interview that the government remains confident in the overall quality of care for wounded troops. "These stories are clearly distressing individually, but we still think the NHS is the best place for these people to be treated," the spokesman said, referring to the National Health Service. The spokesman spoke on condition he not be named, following standard British government policy.

It is unclear how many casualties the British armed forces have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are the largest contingent after the United States. According to the Defense Ministry Web site, 366 military personnel and civilians from the United Kingdom have been treated at U.K. medical facilities in Iraq "as a result of hostile action" since March 2003. In that same period, the Web site states, nearly 4,800 military and civilian personnel have been medically airlifted out of Iraq for any reason, including illness.

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