Soaring casualty list forces Army to call on US medics

Author: By Kim Sengupta, Defence Correspondent

The number for the whole month is expected to be even higher as further casualties from Panther’s Claw, the biggest operation undertaken by UK forces in the Afghan war, filter through. In comparison, there were 46 injuries in the whole of June and 24 in May. July has also been the deadliest month since the mission began, with 22 deaths.

Additional medical staff, including plastic surgeons, X-ray technicians and specialist nurses have been rushed out to Helmand to cope with the steep rise in the numbers of those blown up and shot during continuing and fierce engagements.

And more beds might have to be provided at the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, Surrey, for those who had suffered amputations. According to Blesma (British Limbless Ex-Servicemen Association), 73 members of the armed forces had lost limbs and the number is expected to rise to 80 when recent injuries are counted.

The pressure has been intense, according to Surgeon Rear-Admiral Lionel Jarvis, assistant chief of defence staff (Health). “As a result of the exhaustion of the surgeons and the very long hours that they are working in theatre, we talked to our coalition colleagues and an American surgical team from elsewhere came to reinforce the hospital at Camp Bastion [a British base],” he said.

“We have been watching the whole campaign ? not just Panther’s Claw ? over the past two to three years, reacting to the number of patients in the hospital. In fact, we identified that there was a stage at which we needed more surgeons and surgical teams to react to the ongoing flow of casualties.”

Colonel Peter Mahoney, who has just returned after serving as medical director for clinical care at Camp Bastion at the height of the fighting in Panther’s Claw, said: “It is stressful for everybody dealing with injured young people, particularly when you are cutting off people’s camouflage that you recognise as your own; that’s always more emotive, it’s very distressing. It’s been busy, there’s no doubt about it.

“There have been days when surgical teams are working constantly. We had pulses of activity depending on what’s taking place on the ground.”

Colonel Mahoney described the difficulties posed by the increased use of roadside bombs and mines by the Taliban which has been the biggest source of deaths and injuries among British forces. “It has been difficult, it has certainly tested our skills but our results show that our training has been appropriate. We are looking at all the latest advances in surgery to deal with this.”

Other statistics released yesterday by the Ministry of Defence reflected the rising tempo of violence in what has been described as a defining time in the Afghan conflict. Already this year, 61 members of the British forces have been seriously or very seriously wounded, compared with a total of 65 for the whole of 2008.

Last month, 230 service personnel were brought back to the UK for treatment. In one week alone this month, 157 people were brought to the Camp Bastion field hospital for treatment, including British, other Nato and Afghan troops. There have now been some 2,650 casualties in Afghanistan since the start of MoD records in 2006.

And yesterday, the bodies of the latest British soldiers killed in the war were returned. Warrant Officer Class 2 Sean Upton, of 5 Regiment Royal Artillery, and Trooper Phillip Lawrence, of the Light Dragoons, died in separate explosions in Helmand on 27 July. Bombardier Craig Hopson, of 40 Regiment Royal Artillery, died on 25 July in a roadside bomb attack.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the outgoing head of the Army, called on the whole of Government to be put on a “war-like footing” to deliver support for troops and security for Afghanistan. He said: “We should be under no illusion. We are at war and if we want to succeed, which we must, we must get on to a war-like footing.

“Afghanistan is truly war among the people, about the people and for the people. We are succeeding in spite of the tragic losses that we have suffered. Our people have much to be proud of and I have been immensely humbled by the fortitude of our serving young men and women and their families over the past few years.”

‘You don’t hear about life-changing injuries’

Sergeant Major Andrew Stockton, 42, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during an ambush near Sangin in June 2006, and lost an arm. He was medically discharged from the Royal Artillery in 2007.

I must confess that when I deployed on overseas tours I always thought I might not come back. What I didn’t consider was that I might come back maimed, with life-changing injuries.

I have always said that you hear, very sadly, about those who lose their lives but not about the three or four other people who have suffered life-changing injuries. I’ve always found that surprising. I think the public should know about the injuries that are occurring out there.

I have found it straightforward dealing with my injury. I had one incident in bed at night when I had phantom limb pains and I suddenly thought ‘I’ve only got one arm now’. But it quickly passed. No amount of crying and griping will help the situation. Most soldiers have the same attitude. Blesma (British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association) opens doors to a new life. At 40 years of age I learned to water-ski, qualified as an advanced open-water diver and went white-water rafting.

Last time I was told a guy had been shot in the face, I wondered how I was going to react. I have empathy but it is limited as it was so easy for me to recover. There are people who have worse injuries than me.

There is an overwhelming feeling: ‘I have survived’. I have come back and that is reward enough. If people ask me then I tell them I got ambushed in Afghanistan. It is usually good for a pint.

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