March 12, 2007
Allegations of Poor Medical Treatment Detailed in Relatives' Letters to Defense Ministry
By Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Freeth said her organization believes the Defense Ministry is not being fully forthcoming about casualty figures to deemphasize the total number of troops who have been injured.
Cooper said his son, the youngest British soldier wounded in Iraq, received "wonderful" surgical care after he was struck by shrapnel from two mortar shells that shattered his right hand, left leg and abdomen. But he said the follow-up care his son received at Selly Oak has been a "catalogue of errors."
He said that his son has been denied pain medication for long periods and that during his hospital stay, he had contracted methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a dangerous infection often caused by poor hospital hygiene, and is being treated for it.
Cooper said his son was moved from a mainly military ward to a ward filled with elderly patients suffering from dementia. When the family complained, he was moved to a room with no other patients. Cooper said both experiences were painful for his son, who wanted to be kept on a ward with other injured soldiers for support and camaraderie.
Other soldiers and family members quoted by the Observer offered similar complaints.
Britain once maintained a network of military hospitals, but the last one -- the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in Gosport -- is scheduled to be turned over to the National Health Service at the end of this month. Selly Oak Hospital is operated by NHS but also houses several military-run wards and is home to Britain's Royal Center for Defense Medicine, the military's primary medical organization.
Critics have said the British military needs its own hospitals. But the government, and groups such as the Royal British Legion, argue that the military is not large enough to warrant separate hospitals. They said Britain's top specialists in trauma, burns and other major injuries commonly suffered in combat tend to work in NHS hospitals, so troops should be treated there.
"Serious casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan need and receive advanced levels of care across a wide range of medical disciplines that can only be found in a major trauma hospital," Lillywhite said in his statement. "Our numbers of casualties would not sustain a separate military hospital with the modern specialist equipment and skills of medical staff needed to give them the treatment they deserve."
Cooper said the Observer obtained his letter of complaint from military sources but that he was glad his family's concerns were being publicized.
"We don't speak out enough," he said.
Cooper said his son is "getting stronger all the time" and is now in a mixed military and civilian ward at Selly Oak. He said his son faces at least six more months in the hospital, followed by two or more years of physical therapy.
Despite the improvement, Cooper said, it was still a struggle to get hospital officials to heed his complaints.
"From our experience, they always seem to forget," he said. "They will make improvements, then a few weeks down the road, things slip back to the way they were. It's all been fake promises."