Page last updated at 04:45 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 05:45 UK

Army 'to pay for cold injuries'

by Angus Crawford
BBC News

British soldier
Training in cold conditions has now been improved, say experts

The Ministry of Defence faces paying out millions of pounds in damages to soldiers injured by the cold.

Many of the soldiers are from Commonwealth countries and claim MoD negligence led to them being hurt.

Some have been subjected to extreme pain and varying levels of disability caused by the cold - similar to the condition once known as "trench foot".

The MoD has received about 150 claims for cold injury, and says it will pay compensation if it is found liable.

Doctors say soldiers from hot countries such as those in the Commonwealth are particularly sensitive to Non Freezing Cold Injury (NFCI).

NFCI, which can lead to life-long cold sensitivity and chronic pain, has similarities with the "trench foot" condition suffered by soldiers in WWI.

Lawyers acting for the men say the MoD should have done more to protect them from the cold.

Solicitor Simon Harrington of McCool, Patterson, Hemsi - which is bringing more than 100 claims against the MOD - said the troops' injuries were "entirely avoidable".

"The kit was substandard, the training was substandard, and the supervision was substandard," he said

If liability is established in every case, lawyers estimate the MoD could end up paying out more than £5m.

One former Commonwealth soldier who is suing the MoD told the BBC that his complaints about the freezing cold were ignored by his superiors.

Scott Smith (not his real name), from Nigeria, was medically discharged from the army after suffering NFCI.

'Soldier on'

He had only been in the UK for a few months and contracted the condition whilst on winter exercises in Wales.

He described the experience: "Your feet are stuck in your boots. They are swollen and your fingers feel stiffer to move"

But when Mr Scott complained he says he was told to "just get on with it".

He said: "I was told: 'Soldier on, and stop being a wimp'."

Now back in Nigeria, Mr Scott's fingernails continue to drop off and his feet are constantly sore. He also says he finds it hard in his native country to get treatment for his condition.

The MoD has admitted liability in his case, he said, but to get compensation worth £150,000 he needs to undergo a final medical in London.

But Mr Scott said the Home Office has refused him a visa, fearing he might not return home - a decision he described as "rubbing salt in the wound".

Training changed

Dr Howard Oakley, head of survival and thermal medicine at the institute of naval medicine at Gosport in Hampshire, sees about 400 new cases of cold-injuries every year - two thirds of which are sustained in the UK.

One factor he is studying is the susceptibility of Commonwealth recruits like Mr Scott, who now make up about 7% of the Army.

Dr Oakley said: "The likelihood of Africans or Afro-Caribbeans appearing in my clinic is 30 times greater than that of Caucasians.

"That's a colossal increased risk for them."

Experts say the sheer number of cold injuries is now forcing the military to change its training regimes.

Dr Oakley said military training is being overhauled and added: "We've gone from an attitude of 'well if you're tough enough', to one where early reporting is mandatory and trainers are always thinking about risk."

An MoD spokesman confirmed approximately 150 claims for NFCI are currently being investigated.

He said: "We regret any injury suffered by our personnel while on duty.

"Where the MoD is liable for injury, compensation will be paid."

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