Twenty-five years ago, I was a clerk at the Ministry of Defence (MOD).I worked for Defence Medical Services, amid a colourful coterie of characters.

My favourite was a retired major who was about to retire from being a Retired Officer (don’t ask), who had enlisted in 1942 and come up through the ranks. He claimed to be the most-travelled man ever in the history of the Army.

One time he took me to one side, leaned in and whispered “when the officers aren’t looking, you can call me Ernie“. He said he’d spend his retirement writing his life story, and I have looked out for it ever since and never found it. So if anyone has a copy of Potter’s Wheel by Major Ernest Potter, please do let me know where I can buy it.

Initially I worked for the Army’s nurses. Back then, the MOD had over forty headquarters buildings in London, compared with today’s two or three. My old building is now occupied by the Ministry of Justice and in a strange twist of fate I went there recently to order a copy of a will.

To the consternation of the legion of security guards, I giggled all the way through their x-ray scanner and their metal-detector wands. This was because in my day, when it housed secret defence documents and not public wills, and with the IRA blowing London up randomly, we just had a sleepy old man on a desk who waved you through so long as you waved a piece of paper at him, even if it was a bus ticket.

Then I went mad and was off sick for several months, and when I came back they gave me a new job, working for the RAF’s doctors. It was a new branch. The MOD’s approach to reorganising was slightly more fickle than an adolescent girl’s approach to styling her hair.

The MOD spent the 1980s shutting down many single-service administrative branches to replace them with a tri-service approach. In 1990 the fashion reversed and it started shutting down the tri-service branches and replacing them with single-service ones. It’s like a giant and intensely dull game of musical chairs.

There was a grand tradition that during these reorganisations, branches would dump their old files on whoever they could, so they didn’t have to look after them. The best target was a new branch because you could just sneak in and stow all your old junk there before the new staff had even taken up their posts.

Thus it was that when I walked into the registry of my newly-formed RAF Medical branch, I found an array of filing cabinets and safes with random files stretching back to World War I.

I relieved my boredom by wading through looking for treasure. And treasure was there. Literally, at the nursing branch – I found a sack of gold at the bottom of the secrets safe (more on that story later).

Amid the RAF documents, I found memos from the end of WWI between Royal Flying Corps officers (including RAF founder Hugh Trenchard) saying “I say chaps, how about we have new branch of the services for these bally old kites?”

A small, green, hard-backed folder entitled Confidential Report on Operations in Iraq. It described the results of using chemical weapons against insurgents in the late 1920s, and what lessons could be drawn for future wars. I remember thinking “we did what? They didn’t tell me that in school!”

One issue being considered was whether women could be aircrew, as at that time they still could not be. A doctor, with the rank of squadron leader, submitted a report to my boss on the matter. He’d written it slightly in the style of Biggles, or even General Melchett, and I recall my air commodore – a wonderful, softly-spoken gentleman of great wisdom – taking his red pen and crossing out patronising lines like “if she’s a healthy specimen, there’s no reason I can see she wouldn’t be up to it“.

The RAF men were all interesting characters. The director of defence medical services (tri-service) was an air marshal. This caused much celebration when he was appointed, as the RAF is the most junior service and was often overlooked in favour of the more senior senior services. They particularly disliked the way the Royal Navy personnel brandished their Senior Service status.

The air marshal, who was called Sir Nigel, was newly promoted to director, newly promoted in rank, and newly knighted. He was also looking forward to retirement after a lifetime in RAF medicine. He had a reputation as being an incredibly hard-working doctor and an extremely kind and gentle man.

One day I came into work and there was an atmosphere of intense gloom. I saw stunned-looking staff walking with heads hung, I saw staff crying and hugging. I asked what had happened. Sir Nigel had collapsed and died of a heart attack the previous night. Consensus was he’d worked himself to death.

I sat at my desk and went about my duties, amid palpable silence and gloom. My squadron leader walked in, clapped his hands together and rubbed them, and bellowed “So – old Nigibabes popped his clogs then!” He wasn’t being heartless – it’s just how Forces people approach tragedy.

I was very happy in this branch. I loved my air commodore. My wing commander was the most senior Muslim in the British Armed Forces at the time, and was always gently trying to convert me and my fellow registry clerk. When his office door was closed, we had to peer in through the glass and check if he was at prayer, and if so, we were not to disturb him.

But I am not writing for the sake of nostalgia. I am writing because I have been haunted for twenty-five years by something I saw that I’d consider – at least morally – treason.

In the 1950s, the United Kingdom was testing out its nuclear weapons. The tests consisted of detonating a nuclear device while a big group of servicemen stood a little distance away. Nuclear weapons and their effects were poorly understood. The men had very little protection. The men were irradiated. Then they got on with their lives, with the tests having had little immediate effect on them.

As the decades passed, however, the men started getting ill, with all the usual diseases that are the long-term result of being irradiated, particularly cancer and leukemia.

These men naturally felt the MOD should compensate them for making them ill and killing them. The Government felt it would rather not spend the money. The men had to start fighting for compensation.

The MOD was taking the absurd line that the nuclear tests had not made the men ill. It did this by exploiting the fact that with any cancer, it’s not really possible to determine exactly what caused it. So a man’s cancer might be because he was at a nuclear test, or it might be because he worked with asbestos, smoked, or just was unlucky. This room for doubt was where the MOD hoped to neutralise the men’s claims for compensation.

The RAF doctors in my branch were being asked for their opinion. And they gave it. And it was pretty much as I have described – being irradiated can cause long-term health problems but there is no way to prove any given health problem was directly caused by a specific exposure to radiation.

I saw no evidence that anyone from above pressured any of the doctors to reach this conclusion. It just happened to be scientific fact, unfortunate as it was for the veterans’ case.

Furthermore, I watched these officers, saw how they did things, how they carried themselves, what they derived their sense of self-worth from. I don’t believe any of the officers I met would have succumbed to pressure to dissemble for the sake of saving the Government from having to compensate veterans.

To put it simply, there was nothing anyone higher-up could offer them that would have been worth more to them than their professional pride and sense of honour.

These were mostly doctors, and commissioned RAF officers. The forces does (or did) have commissioned officers who were solicitors, but not a great many and mostly in the Army. The recalcitrance over compensating the veterans was coming from much higher up, but I don’t know where.

Most of the legal professionals the Government were utilising to obstruct the veterans were civilians. I think some were not even Civil Servants, but were effectively hired goons.

Enough preamble, now we come to why I am writing this. Now I come to the words that have haunted me for a quarter of a century.

Bear in mind, many of these aging men had cancer of various forms.

I saw a memo by one of the legal men, which said:-

If we prolong the legal process long enough, this problem will address itself.

In other words, string out the legal obstructionism and the veterans would die of the cancers we gave them, and dead men cannot fight for compensation for the cancers we killed them with.

I sat at my desk and stared at this memo in shock. I was seventeen years old, more child than man, and had a sheltered rural upbringing and was taught a lot of naive views about the innate goodness of the system and all in it.

Looking back I wish I’d blown the whistle. But I did not. It didn’t even occur to me.

I put the memo into the relevant file and left it on my air commodore’s desk. I never looked for it or saw it again and don’t know what the air commodore did about it. But I knew the man and he would have been more appalled than me.

Maybe he asked the relevant people to dispense with that man’s services, maybe he just ignored it. I don’t know.

But that legal man was just one man. His attitude doesn’t necessarily reflect that of the system. The problem is, in point of fact, it does.

Look at where we are now. We’re commemorating the centenary of World War I. When we commemorated 90 years since the Armistice, there were thirty-two British World War I combat veterans surviving. Suddenly, they mattered. But for most of the decades since their War, they didn’t matter a lot to the state they served.

They didn’t get a land fit for heroes – they got unemployment and poverty following the crash of 1929, and in the 1980s they starved in freezing homes due to inadequate pensions.

I was a paper-boy in the 1980s and I remember one story of a veteran found dead at home. He had no heating, and post-mortem showed his last meal to be lard spread on cardboard – he had no food.

Then when the number of veterans who had fought in the trenches of World War I was down to one – Mr Harry Patch – there was talk of a knighthood and a state funeral. Mr Patch was horrified by the idea and refused both. He said “why me and not all my comrades, just because I outlived them?”

Now we see a similar process unfold with the veterans of World War II. As their numbers dwindle, the extent to which the nation cherishes them increases. A little too late for most of them.

When I saw Falklands veterans marching at the Remembrance Day parade last November, I was shocked that the men of this war – which I remember – were looking almost as old as World War II veterans looked when I was a child.

They are perhaps the worst-treated veterans of any modern conflict, because when they got home, the country just didn’t get them. At least World War II veterans came home to a country so dominated by the War and so full of veterans that they could at least feel like they belonged.

The whole shoddy process is going to repeat itself with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, if we let it. We’re a country of young veterans again. When I was in the MOD, a typical general had the Long Service and Good Conduct medal and other time-server gongs. There weren’t many combat veterans around.

Now I see men half my age with large rows of campaign and war medals. And yet, do we treat them appropriately? Help for Heroes is a great charity but why should veterans have to rely on charity instead of being looked after by the state they served? I don’t believe in general the country owes people a living. But if they’ve fought for their country, I think it does.

The time is long overdue to turn the tide. That lawyer’s idea about stringing the veterans along until they die is just the most extreme example of an attitude that infests the state. Veterans have served their purpose, now they’re a burden.

Despite straitened times, the Government has billions to waste on white-elephant rail projects, dead white elephant IT projects from unfit-for-purpose outsourcing companies, unnecessary and destructive NHS reorganisation, and bureaucratic welfare “reforms”.

We could put all that wasted taxpayers’ money in a big pot and have every veteran taken care of, and still have enough change for an extra aircraft carrier. Or an extra hospital.

And in fantasy, I knock on the door of that lawyer whose memo has haunted me all these years.

“Excuse me Sir, I’m from the Government. About that treacherous advice you gave us twenty-five years ago. We’re not going to put you in prison or anything, but whatever we paid you for that advice – we’d like it back please, with interest. There’s a chap down the road who lost his leg in Afghanistan and that money would cover a nice holiday for him and his family.”

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