Hard Won Medals: The Olympics and the role of the Armed Forces
Ewan McGregor argues that in the wake of the Olympics remembering our service personnel is more important than ever.
by Ewan McGregor
Monday 13th August 2012, 17:22 BST
As the Olympics draw to a close it is easy to focus on the achievements of the athletes who have dominated the recent headlines. However another group of people, the men and women of our armed forces, have also been very much on display at the Olympics. Soldiers, sailors and airmen have checked bags, filled the empty seats of foreign sports dignitaries, raised flags at medal ceremonies and in a few cases competed for (and even won) medals. The warm reception their presence has caused in both the press and public therefore is well deserved.
Roles such as these at the Olympics, or even Wimbledon or the Edinburgh Tattoo, do however make it very easy to forget the strain under which the Armed Forces are currently placed. These past two weeks there were nearly twice as many soldiers, sailors and airmen deployed in security roles at the Olympics as there have been serving in Afghanistan. Soldiers freshly returned from operational tours abroad were drafted directly into roles at the games and the essential cycle of deployment, training and leave has been heavily disrupted. This happened at a time when the Armed Forces are reeling from the effect of over a decade of foreign wars, the heaviest and most prolonged burden they have borne since decolonisation half a century ago. Furthermore, a cloud of uncertainty hovers over military personnel as battalions are cut, soldiers face redundancy and a massive programme of change and restructuring looms.
Today’s Armed Forces are also arguably the most remote from the public for many years, a consequence of reductions in manpower which have continued almost steadily since the last British Olympics in 1948. We may now, in the post-Northern Ireland era, see more of our troops wearing uniform, but I suspect while most people reading this article will know someone serving, very few will have a direct relative in the Forces. We hear with regret of the latest dead from Helmand, and the country does honour their sacrifices in a way that it didn’t ten years ago. What we don’t however, hear enough of are those who are injured, often grievously, yet survive. Advances in medicine and battlefield-support mean that formerly fatal wounds, are now often no longer so. The scale of these advances is nothing short of astounding. A British soldier wounded today has approximately double the chance of surviving compared to his predecessor at the 1948 Games. This is mostly due to rapid evacuation of casualties using helicopters, as well as improved immediate intervention and surgical techniques.
While it is remarkable that these people do have the chance to live on, they often do so with terrible physical or mental injuries which render continued military service impossible, and also make it very difficult for them to fit back into civilian life. These injuries can also place an enormous burden on the families of injured personnel. It is not that “they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”, rather they will grow old, and must do so while coping with the consequences of their time in the Armed Forces.
We will see some of the rehabilitation success stories of wounded military personnel in a few weeks’ time at the Paralympics, with Service veterans very conceivably leading the charge in gathering another large British medal haul. Jimmy Carr may have been slated for his joke about this, but he did have a point. (His tax affairs are another matter altogether). For every success however, there are those who have yet to overcome their difficulties. Service charities such as the Poppy Appeal and the various forces’ benevolent funds (Links for the RAF, Army, Navy can be found here) do a great deal of important and effective work in helping ex-servicemen and women to adjust in every sense to returning to civilian life.
Whilst we all enjoyed the Olympics, I urge you to pause next time you remember the soldier who ushered you to your seat or the airman who raised the flags at a medal ceremony, and think of the tremendous risks and their consequences which military personnel face on our behalf. All three Armed Services are under great strain, exacerbated by London hosting the largest sporting spectacle on earth. It is the least we can do to be fully aware of the loads military personnel bear at the behest of governments we have elected, and the problems some may face for the rest of their lives.