Yesterday’s instalment of Liam Fox’s Washington diary can be read here.
It is indicative of a sense of self doubt that so many Americans have asked “what do people in Britain think about America?”. There is real concern that events in the Gulf have left the US isolated and there is a sense of both irritation and bewilderment among ordinary Americans who believe that they have been genuinely trying to improve the lot of the Iraqi people.
On Capitol Hill Iraq remains the hugely dominant issue with Iran rapidly moving up the agenda. I met with a number of Republican politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum all of whom talked about the strains between the White House and Republicans in Congress. In particular, there is resentment that they defended Donald Rumsfeld all the way to polling day only for him to leave office immediately afterwards. There is frustration at the lack of progress from the Iraqi government but real appreciation of the support given by the UK.
We visited the huge Walter Reed military hospital which was really less a hospital than a small town. There is a local campaign to stop its closure and merger with Bethesda Naval hospital a few miles away. Sound familiar?
The reason for my visit was to meet with some of the cutting edge medical staff who deal with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Put simply, those who are in the proximity of an explosion can suffer brain injury ranging from mild concussion to severe trauma. Modern body armour saves many lives that would otherwise be lost but it also results therefore in a greater number of disabled survivors – the number of amputees being fitted with prosthetic limbs a visible reminder of this.
One of the problems is the number of cases of concussion that go undiagnosed. This can result in long term neurological or psychological problems and protocols are being introduced to identify and treat those affected. After Vietnam it took some time before PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was recognised so there is a great drive to deal with this problem early. It is essential that the British Government learns these lessons and ensures that our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan receive the same level of treatment. I tabled a number of Parliamentary Questions on this subject recently and am awaiting the answers.
The general level of medical support given to veterans in the US is something we can learn from and we are having further contacts to see what more we could do for those who have put life and limb at risk for the security of our people.
Before I left for Washington I met a young soldier who complained that he was being given (verbally) a hard time in his local pub about the war in Iraq. He rightly resented the fact that, rather than having pride in the work our forces do with professionalism and courage, parts of the British public were blaming him for what they regard as government failures. That simply does not happen in the US where membership of the armed forces produces an automatic respect and generates unchallenged benefits.
I watched in Dulles Airport as two soldiers went through security and noted the warmth and courtesy with which they are treated. Are we so out of touch with our Military in the UK that we cannot understand the sacrifices they make on our behalf? Is it because so few people in modern Britain have direct contact with the armed forces that there seems to be so little comprehension about what they actually do or is it part of a general decline in respect for any form of authority? Is it because we see too few servicemen and women in uniform nowadays?
I wonder whether the endless anti-war diatribe from parts of our media does not carry a heavy responsibility for failing to point out the distinction between those who make the policy and our service men and women who carry out their tasks with such distinction. As a young infantryman put it to me in Iraq “the only way we could ever get on the BBC would be to get killed or injured. No one cares about the good things we do”. It is a long way from the open pride the Americans show towards their armed forces.