Afghanistan has seldom been out of the headlines this year, and rightly so. It is the war of our generation. Either we go to Afghanistan or Afghanistan comes to us. Yet it still remains remote from the majority of people in the United Kingdom who, despite the atrocities of 7 July 2005, are largely spared from its realities in a way that they were not in the Second World War. Few know much about the country, and they find it hard to envisage what our troops are going through or how the operation is progressing.
But what people do see is the dedicated and professional way our troops are performing their difficult duties. Everyone has seen the news clips of those sad cortèges passing through Wootton Bassett, and they have heard how amputees stoically set about rebuilding their lives. The sacrifice and bravery of our people has touched a nation unused to seeing our young generation as role models.
I had the privilege of talking to many D-Day veterans as we celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Normandy Landings. They were universal in emphasising how much they admire and how much they feel they have in common with those serving today.
Charities such as Help for Heroes (H4H)mean a lot to us; it is more of a movement than a charity. It offers a way for people to turn their support and sympathy into action and to contribute to projects that will benefit those who have suffered as a result of fighting a war to give us all a more secure future.
H4H has correctly and dynamically gal-vanised public concern over the last few years, but there are several other military charities which also do valuable work supporting our troops. The Army Benevolent Fund, established over 65 years ago, provides support to serving and former soldiers. It particularly helps those experiencing homelessness and unemployment – problems that are sadly quite common with ex-soldiers – and older people. It is known as “the soldiers’ charity” and does a huge amount of good.
Alongside them, and in every garrison, you will find the volunteers of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA). They draw on a wide network of voluntary helpers, many of whom are themselves serving or married to servicemen or women, to offer support to those serving and retired. The SSAFA visitors are particularly valuable in helping the Army to support the families of those serving overseas and those who are having family or financial problems.
Two more specialist charities also provide critical support, given the nature of current operations. The British Limbless Ex Servicemen’s Association (BLESMA), supports serving and ex-service people who have lost limbs or the sight of an eye, their dependants, families and widows. They focus on getting the amputee to help the amputee – what they call “the fellowship of shared experience”. The feats accomplished by some of our young amputees are truly remarkable and speak volumes both for their determination and for the excellence of the Defence Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court.
Then there is Combat Stress, the leading charity specialising in the care of British vet-erans who have been traumatised by harrowing experiences during their service careers. They help care for about 4,000 veterans from almost every campaign in which British troops have fought, and took on 1,257 new cases last year alone. It is the invisible wounds that can be the hardest to cure.
The issue for us as a generation is not so much the present, the immediate help and rehabilitation of the injured and bereaved, but the longer term. Basrah is now a peaceful and prosperous city which will once again take its place as one of the great commercial centres of the Middle East. Our children will work in banks there just as they will one day drive along the highway from Herat to Kandahar and Kabul and say, “Our parents were always talking about Helmand.” But those who suffered to allow that to happen will always live with their injuries.
When deciding which charities to support this year, or where to direct your fund-raising, remember that whether or not you agree with the Afghan operation it will determine the manner in which you live. Remember those who have suffered for that.
Help For Heroes: Gundog training