Page last updated at 09:02 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 10:02 UK

Injured troops battle bureaucracy

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent

Stephen Shine
Stephen lost his left leg in an explosion in Basra

Many service personnel and their families are increasingly turning to charities for extra financial help as they negotiate the official support system.

The Army Benevolent Fund is launching its annual appeal to boost coffers and says demands on its services are rising.

Like many other British soldiers, Trooper Stephen Shine recently returned home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

What sets him apart is that the 25-year-old was determined to serve alongside his comrades from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment despite losing his left leg to an improvised explosive device in Basra in 2007. He also suffered severe injuries to his right leg.

But while Stephen managed to serve in Afghanistan again, he is one of many younger soldiers - as well as older former servicemen - who are increasingly turning to military charities for extra help.

In Stephen's case, it was funding for an accessible shower to be installed in his parents' home in London, where he lives when not on duty.

So much is asked of our young soldiers these days
Army Benevolent Fund

"I was in a wheelchair when I came home at first, and it was a nightmare. I couldn't get it through the door, and we had all these steps in the house, and I couldn't get into the bath without hanging off the sink," he says.

"There are loads of problems that you don't realise until you first get home that you're going to struggle with and that you need help with."

His family had tried dealing with the local authorities first, who suggested putting a board across the existing bath and installing a shower overhead.

His mother Frances says it was not a particularly useful suggestion, at a time when the family most needed fast, practical assistance with the everyday challenges of dealing with their son's injury.

At the suggestion of his regiment, the Shine family turned to the Army Benevolent Fund, which helps serving soldiers, veterans and their families. It says it has seen an increase of 20% in requests for assistance in the last year alone.

Stephen Shine in his family home
Adapting a shower 'sounds like such a little thing, but it really helps'

On Tuesday the charity launches its annual appeal, with its controller, Major-General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter, highlighting the increasing need amongst veterans and serving soldiers for public assistance and support.

"We are now seeing requests for assistance with mobility from young men injured by roadside bombs and IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq - something which will only continue to increase as the effects of the fighting are felt by a greater number of people," he says.

"So much is asked of our young soldiers these days. They have seen more suffering and death in their short lifetime than most of us will ever see, facing dangers most of us can only imagine.

"It's our job to ensure that soldiers get the help they need is offered - but we need the public's help to be able to do that. We envisage the increase for assistance will continue to rise, which is why we're asking for help now. "

At least 875 servicemen and women have been wounded in action in Afghanistan since the conflict began in 2001, and many military charities warn that the injured from the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan will need extra assistance for many years to come, whether with adapting homes or cars, or helping start a new life if they leave the armed forces.

"Adapting a shower sounds like such a little thing, but it really helps," says Stephen, who believes they were lucky that his regiment could advise his family on how to find help.

His mother Frances says one of the hardest things for many families whose sons or daughters have been injured in the line of duty is finding out how and where to get the right assistance.

Charities are good at looking after the soldier - but there is always a family as well
Frances Shine

She says far too many have to face complex bureaucratic hurdles at their most vulnerable point. She is critical of the help offered by the government.

"It was non-existent, to be honest. I had to find out everything for myself, and I'm still finding out because there's so many different charities. They're all willing to help - if only you know how to access them," she says.

"I've spoken to other families, and they're very confused about what help is available. It is one of the main concerns, who to turn to for help."

Frances Shine is now involved in a armed forces families support group, and believes what would be most useful for many is a kind of 'one-stop shop' that would let them know which of the many military charities they are eligible to turn to when they need help the most - in the devastating weeks and months following an injury.

She says: "I think families are just sort of left to get on with it on their own. And wives need that help as well. Often their lives have been turned upside down overnight, and they are having to look after small children at the same time as looking after a badly-injured husband.

"Charities are good at looking after the soldier - but there is always a family as well, and they need to be helped too, because they are the ones looking after the soldier."

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