Care for UK military veterans is 'flawed', medical experts say
The government is failing to abide by its pledge to give injured British soldiers priority for medical treatment in the years after their service, medical experts have said.
Leading professors in psychology and orthopaedics say the healthcare system is not providing veterans with the service they have been promised.
The Armed Forces Covenant says veterans will be "sustained and rewarded".
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said it was "fully committed" to the covenant.
But Professor Neil Greenberg, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said he believed ministers were failing to honour the military covenant promise.
"In my view the government needs to be a bit more honest about what it is delivering and just what it says it's delivering, because the two are definitely not the same," he said.
Freedom of information figures obtained by the military charity Help for Heroes show almost 13,000 service personnel have been medically discharged for musculoskeletal disorders since 2001 - those who have lost limbs or have problems with ligaments and joints - with many requiring constant care throughout their lives.
Prof Tim Briggs, a leading orthopaedic surgeon, recently wrote the Chavasse report which outlined the problems former personnel face on the NHS.
He said he was "moved" by the sacrifice made by veterans who attended his clinics, and he believed "we can do better and we should do better".
He said that "finding access to specialist care was sometimes proving difficult and as a result some veterans were falling through the net and we had to improve things".
Labour's shadow minister for veterans, Gemma Doyle, said the medical experts' comments were a "damning indictment", and proof the government had failed to meet its obligations.
Shot in the face
Simon Brown, a corporal in the Army for more than 10 years, was shot in the face by a sniper in 2006 and was medically discharged four years later.
"The bullet hit my left cheek between the eye and the nose and exited my right cheek between the nose and the ear," he said.
"My cheek bones were obliterated, my jaw was broken in four places, I'd lost my left eye totally and there was very little hope of any sight returning to my right eye."
Almost a decade on, he says he has still not had all the surgery and treatment he requires and insists it is not the fault of staff, rather the system is flawed.
"It has been long processes - there's been a lot of jumping through hoops you know. I actually had to see a committee to see whether or not I was entitled to free plastic surgery," he said.
If veterans got the treatment they are entitled to they could remain "productive members of society", he said.
"I see it as it's actually a good investment to look after these people and give them the support and help they need."
More than 200,000 men and women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
The military covenant states that soldiers could be called upon to make the "ultimate sacrifice" but in return they and their families will be "sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service".
The moral obligation to treat veterans should not stop when service ends, the covenant states, saying veterans should receive priority healthcare from the NHS when they are being treated for a condition dating from their time in the armed forces.
Once a veteran leaves the forces, their healthcare is the responsibility of the NHS.
The main principles of the military covenant were enshrined in law in the Armed Forces Act 2011.
The government says the defence secretary must report annually on the progress made by ministers in honouring the covenant.
Help For Heroes has estimated that 75,000 service personnel could suffer mentally and physically as a result of operations in Afghanistan.
With some NHS staff unaware of the covenant - and veterans not always keen to tell their doctors about their past - the charity has said a government database would help to make sure they receive the care they are entitled to.
Earlier this year, the Conservative MP James Arbothnot told the Defence Select Committee he was disappointed the government kept detailed records of sheep and cows, but couldn't do the same for veterans.
Labour MP Madeleine Moon, who also sits on the committee, said that the government had promised things but not followed through.
She said a renewed focus needed to be on "the long term", and making sure that veterans did not get "lost in the system".
But health minister Dan Poulter said the government had invested more than £22m in mental health and prosthetic services, "specifically for those most in need".
The investment included 10 regional veteran mental health teams and nine veteran-focused prosthetic centres providing support and care for ex-servicemen and women.
He told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme that care for veterans had been vastly improved, and as a result "it had raised the game" in terms of dealing with complex cases for the wider population generally.
"Where there is an equal clinical need between two patients, under the covenant it is the veteran who will receive priority," he said.
An MoD spokesman said the government had "worked hard to ensure our serving personnel, veterans and families have the support they need and are treated with the dignity they deserve".
"That is why we enshrined the covenant in law in 2011. Since then all local councils have signed up to the Community Covenant, and more than 300 companies have signed up to the Corporate Covenant - including Tesco just this week.
"We are very proud and grateful of the commitment that all those that have signed the Covenants have made and it demonstrates the immense amount of respect and gratitude there is for our armed forces," the spokesman added.