Gordon Brown snubbed by soldiers' 'curtain' protest
2009-12-07 0:00

By Steven Swinford | TimesOnline.co.uk

Gordon Brown was snubbed by badly injured Afghan veterans when they closed curtains round their beds during a hospital visit and refused to speak to him.

More than half the soldiers being treated at the Selly Oak hospital ward in Birmingham either asked for the curtains to be closed or deliberately avoided the prime minister, according to several of those present.

The soldiers, who have sustained some of the worst injuries seen in Afghanistan, described his visit as “opportunistic” and a “waste of time”.

Furious about equipment shortages and poor compensation for their injuries, one soldier said: “It is almost as if we are the product of an unwanted affair ... he has done nothing for us.”

Brown visited the military wing of Selly Oak on September 2, where about 25 wounded soldiers were being treated. They were told about the visit in the morning and asked by nurses if they wanted to speak to him.

Sapper Matthew Weston, 20, is one of the most seriously injured soldiers to have survived. He lost both legs and his right arm when a bomb exploded on a dirt track outside Sangin.

He said: “I didn’t want to speak to him, I didn’t want to waste my time talking to someone who was just trying to make themselves look good. I spent the day with my family instead.

“Half the lads didn’t want to speak to him and those that did pretty much blamed him for everything. Many of the lads just closed their curtains and hid themselves away.

“I met Prince Charles and Sir Richard Dannatt [when they visited Selly Oak]. I have respect for them. Prince Charles spoke to me for two hours. I really didn’t want to speak to Gordon Brown.”

Another soldier, who suffered severe injuries when caught in a mine explosion, left the hospital in an attempt to avoid Brown.

He was angry at the government’s attempt to cut compensation payouts for injured soldiers. He said: “I went outside for a fag but when I came back he was still there. Most of us said we wouldn’t like to see him so we drew our curtains and waited for him to go.

“It was a pretty sour thing, we feel a lot of bitterness towards Gordon Brown. The guys read the papers, it is obvious to them that he doesn’t care. Many of us felt like it was an effort to accommodate him.

“At the time the Ministry of Defence were trying to sue wounded British soldiers to cut their compensation. It was so wrong. It doesn’t give the guys any faith in the government, it doesn’t make us feel like they support us or look after us.

“The lads didn’t say much after the visit. Some were grateful he had bothered to come up to see us, others were saying they wished they could have thumped him.”

Another soldier, who lost his right leg after being caught in a mine blast in Afghanistan, said that more than two-thirds of the 25 soldiers on the ward closed their curtains. He, however, decided to speak to Brown.

“I wanted to find out how the guy’s head worked,” he said. “I was interested in what he had made of his trip to Afghanistan and what he had learnt from it.

“I feel that even if someone is a moron, he should have the opportunity to defend his moronity. [His response] all seemed rather textbook and not from the heart.

“It is quite obvious to anyone that Brown is not concerned, it is almost as if we [the soldiers] are the product of an unwanted affair.

“The straight fact is this: we don’t like the man, he has done nothing for us and continues to kick us in the teeth over equipment and compensation.”

The most severely wounded troops are flown from the front line to Selly Oak for treatment, often within 12 hours of being operated on by teams of surgeons in Camp Bastion. The hospital has a specialist, 32-bed military-run ward to help soldiers recover from their injuries alongside other servicemen.

The concerns of the wounded soldiers appear to highlight a disconnection between front line troops in Afghanistan and Brown and his government. Earlier this year an official report suppressed by ministers revealed that soldiers’ lives were being put at risk by “endemic” failures at the Ministry of Defence.

It blamed a “political fudge” and Whitehall incompetence for the failure to provide soldiers in Afghanistan with adequate equipment, and said bungled projects were £35 billion over budget.

At the same time Brown has been accused of failing to give adequate funding to the military. As chancellor he oversaw a dramatic increase in government expenditure on education, welfare and health while the defence budget fell from 2.8% of GDP to 2.2%.

The cuts have continued since he became prime minister. In October he was forced to backtrack over plans to impose a £17.5m cut in the Territorial Army’s training budget, while a month earlier the government took two injured soldiers to court in a test case that would have slashed compensation payments to injured soldiers.

The failings are damaging the morale of troops on the front line. According to a survey of 10,500 Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel, published in August, the majority of servicemen and women feel morale is low, singling out equipment shortages as one of their biggest concerns.

Two days after his visit to Selly Oak, Brown paid tribute to injured soldiers during a speech in London. He said: “There is nothing more heartbreaking than, as I did this week, meeting a teenager who has lost a leg.”

Yesterday a spokesman for the prime minister said: “The prime minister regularly visits wounded service personnel. He has the utmost respect and admiration for the soldiers’ sacrifice, bravery and dignity. As you would expect, we never comment on the PM’s private visits to injured soldiers.”

Article from: TimesOnline.co.uk

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