The debt we owe our soldiers

First published in Ray Mallon The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

HUMAN beings are forgetful creatures.

We get so involved in the here and now – even though our pre-occupations may be trivial and temporary – that we often overlook the things that really matter.

The things that should be at the forefront of our minds every waking hour. The really important things.

And so it is, that for the past 48 hours, the war in Afghanistan has once again been on every front page, and on all our minds.

If we are honest with ourselves, outside the community of Army personnel and their immediate family or friends, few of us have given that war and the daily danger experienced by our service men and women much thought in the past few months. It was one of the things that we put on the mental backburner.

We had forgotten that we are at war.

It should not have taken a single death, let alone six to remind us of that.

We forgot because of the human failing I have remarked on. We have also forgotten because the life of service personnel is hard for most of us to understand.

The days when a large number of young men could expect to spend some time in uniform are over. The burden of fighting our conflicts and of bringing peace and order to some of the world’s most dangerous places has fallen on a small, superbly trained professional army. We cannot be too grateful to them for shouldering that burden for us.

From that gratitude should come understanding and a determination not to be so forgetful again.

It should not lead to calls for withdrawal, however understandable. Afghanistan is the front line against extremism and terrorism, but in the modern world that front line is everywhere. We are all combatants too, because we owe it to the brave and decent men and women in the services to stand shoulderto- shoulder with them against extremism and terrorism. It can never be tolerated.

We should remember, too, by giving them practical support. That means ensuring that pay and living conditions of service people and their families aren’t scrimped and that when they leave the Armed Forces their personal and technical skills are used and valued.

That word valued is important. I have spoken to many people in the services. One thing they all said was that knowing that they were valued by their home community made a huge difference to their morale and feeling of well-being.

In Middlesbrough, we have launched a partnership with the Yorkshire Regiment, five of whose soldiers were killed this week, in recognition of its ties with the town. The regiment’s second battalion was, of course, known to all Teessiders as The Green Howards. This includes the “Heroes Welcome”

initiative encouraging businesses to support and befriend services personnel, involving members of the regiment in the Middlesbrough 10k run and making the Yorkshire Regiment Benevolent Fund our town charity.

It will be followed by our signing up to the Military Covenant through which local authorities commit themselves to using their services and resources to improve the wellbeing and employment chances of veterans.

These are all simple, practical ways in which we can embed respect and concern for the armed services in our daily lives. They are the public equivalent of the stick-on note on the telephone or computer, the entry in big red letters in the diary, the early morning alarm call. Because we must never allow ourselves to forget again.

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