Why the UK needs a Stolen Valour Act.

MedalsToday The Sun became the latest national newspaper to highlight the need for a Stolen Valour Act as the scale of the ‘Walter Mitty’ problem among men falsely claiming military service, acts of valour or conflict-related PTSD unfolds.

Wg Cdr Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of the 84-year-old charity Veterans Aid, has long been an advocate of a UK Stolen Valour Act. He wants the Government to consider a UK equivalent to America’s Stolen Valor Act, and similar laws in Australia and Canada, under which it is a crime to make false claims about military decorations.

The frontline charity he heads up checks all propsective clients’ credentials and has first hand knowledge of how widely fantasy is used to excuse or explain failings, gain public sympathy and feed vanity

In the UK, pretending to have served in the armed forces is only illegal if the person doing so stands to make financial gain, for which they can be pursued for fraud. But prosecutions for such offences are rare.

Dr Milroy said:  “This is a really important  issue and we mustn’t let the military become an object of derision or mistrust in British society because they are part of society. In the end this behaviour, if unstopped, will end up putting the defence of the nation at risk.

“If we have a system where politicians think this is nothing more than a joke then they are colluding in this. It’s not a joke. It offends. People are really angry about it.

“The fact is that these people can do and say what they like with virtual impunity. We had a guy yesterday, here at Veterans Aid,  who had done three evenings with the TA and declared he had PTSD.”

It’s not just a question of Stolen Valour but also Stolen Trauma. This latter leads to NHS and charity resources being wasted on people pretending to be mentally ill; it leaves Social Services unable to do their job properly without knowing which clients are genuine and which were not.

Dr Milroy believes that even those within the Criminal Justice System – the police, courts and prisons – do not know if indivduals are  claiming military trauma and PTSD to get lighter treatment.

He said: “We are working with a major British prison and of the 45 people who have come forward since Veterans Aid came on board  to verify their military service, nearly half were found never to have served.

“We can cite lots of cases. We’ve   got a guy who must have been in prison the best part of 100 times and he tells them every time that he has ‘served for 10 years , fought undercover in the Lebanon, and got PTSD’. The reality is  that he spent just three weeks in the Royal Marines.”

See The Sun article HERE.

A salute to Sir Terry Wogan

In May 2012 I had the privilege of meeting and filming Sir Terry with colleagues from TTV Pictures, for the charity Veterans Aid. We met at the BBC on a Sunday morning shortly before he was due to go on air.

Terry Wogan - Stand by MeHe was affable, relaxed, professional and friendly – interested in the charity’s work and in no hurry to get the recording done; in short, one of the nicest individuals I have ever met. His time, to raise awareness of the charity’s event (The Big Bus Pull),  was freely given; it was a relatively brief encounter, but the  memory of his charm and gracious reception will endure. I know that colleagues at Veterans Aid and TTV Pictures will be as saddened as I am to learn of his passing.

The last time I saw Paris . . .

Two months ago I was in Paris, enjoying a short holiday in a beautiful city that I first visited as a teenager. It was warm and sunny; I enjoyed a meal with a friend near Sacre Coeur and reflected on hoLes Deux Magotsw well  it had worn over the years.

We went to the charming district of St Germain des Pres with its distinctive atmosphere of  fun and freedom.

Today Paris is a city in mourning as yet another terrorist atrocity turns death into a shared spectacle; ugly, needless, cruel and so very public. Raw grief unites humanity as nothing else; the stunned, dazed, stupefied expressions of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances  . . .

“Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”

 

Auschwitz revisited – a chilling parallel

Last year a record 1.5m people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in Oświęcim, Poland. In ‘dark tourism’ terms the former concentration camp is a success story. A Google search pulls up more websites advertising  tours than relating to Holocaust history, but underlying this phenomenon there is a message.

(*Originally published in UK Progressive )

“I don’t think he needs those” said the young boy’s mother as we approached the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei arch spanning the entrance to Auschwitz.

She was waving away a set of headphones, offered to amplify the audio commentary delivered by tour guides to the complex. Of course ‘complex’ hardly describes what remains of this notorious death camp and in the fading light of a September afternoon it resembles more a neglected school or hospital, with its institutional layout and designated departments.

Barbed wire and sections of once electrified fencing still serve to remind visitors that it was neither, but any sense of  menace is dissipated by the theme park atmosphere as coaches disgorge tourists from all nations to queue for tickets.

Our small group is constantly reminded that we have a ‘slot’ and that we must move briskly. Cameras and smartphones click and flash constantly as we are herded up slippery stone staircases to rooms displaying shoes, artificial limbs, hair, clothing, spectacles and innocuous-looking pellets of Zyklon-B. Inert until activated by exposure to air, these latter are perhaps the most sinister of the Auschwitz artefacts.

This is my first visit to a former Nazi concentration camp. It is in Poland, just over an hour’s drive from Krakow and not far from the equally notorious extermination facility of Birkenau. I am numbed less than I expected to be by the apparatus of death, knowledge of which I’ve subconsciously assimilated over a lifetime of reading and learning. What does stun me is the scale of the visitor operation at this living museum.

The child deprived of headphones looks bewildered as his parents are nudged by the momentum of the crowd from room to room. Fading black and white photographs replicate families like his own; they peer down from the walls, frozen in time with their pitiful belongings and anxious expressions. They reach out over the years to remind us that, like the refugees moving across Europe today, they are just human flotsam with no assurance of safety or welcome ahead of them.

Following the child’s gaze my eyes are drawn to the image of a man. Tall and dignified he wears a dark overcoat not unlike one my father once owned. He and  the well-dressed woman I assume to be his wife hold the hands of a little girl. In his other hand, a small suitcase. They are new arrivals, photographed at a point where they are uneasy but have no intimation of what is to come. Maybe they still have hope?

Later we move on to Birkenau for the last admission of the day. The threatened light shower has materialized as torrential rain and the temperature has dropped significantly.

Sometimes described as ‘Auschwitz 2’ Birkenau was the largest of more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. It opened in 1942 and approximately 1m people died there – Jews, Poles, Gypsies Soviet POWs and many other nameless individuals considered undesirable by the Nazis.

As we walk into the wind and rain a bleak and empty vista unfolds; ghostly railway lines describe a path towards a stark memorial. To one side of it are the remains of a hastily destroyed elimination facility; beyond that, on the walk back we enter the barracks where women deemed of no further value were  contained until they either died or were ready for disposal.

By this time I am soaked to the skin and numb with cold. The barracks we stand in are dark and the tiered wooden ‘bunks’ where sick and expendable women lay stacked like sardines represent the only furniture. “Two stoves would have been in here” observes our guide, “but there was rarely fuel – and no water or toilets. Death by disease or starvation was the only way out.”

In the warmth of our transport back to Krakow my fingers begin to tingle as life returns.  The members of our small group are tired and quiet. An English newspaper shows images of refugees struggling under razor wire, huddling in the mud as they wait to be ‘processed’. Families stare bleakly into the lenses of strangers’ cameras.

I wonder if I am alone in seeing a terrible parallel?

 

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Burnt Norton – T.S. Eliot

Afghan women declare “We are ALL Farkunda”

A documentary chronicling events immediately before and after the murder of Farkunda Malikzada has just been released. It is a harrowing story, told mainly through the anguished tears of the student’s mother and father. (Background) 

Woman's Hour - Farkhunda

Not for the faint hearted, it is  a timely reminder that even in Afghanistan’s capital city the power of the (male) mob is still  potent and the most fortified bastions of ‘law and order’ are not safe. (Kabul Police HQ bombed).

Watch/listen HERE.

A scholarship established in memory of Farkhunda has been established. More information about it can be found on The Afghan Women’s Support Forum website by clicking HERE.

 

 

Afghanistan’s First Lady backs battle against silent killer

Taraki 1 New

Dr Zarghuna Taraki, University College Hospital, London. Pictures © Glyn Strong.

A killer disease has united two women living 3,500 miles apart. One is a sufferer, the other a surgeon. Until recently they were strangers, but a London-based networking group brought them together in the wake of a campaign that has now attracted the support of Afghanistan’s First Lady writes Glyn Strong (UK Progressive).

When a Kabul mob turned on a devout young woman and publicly beat her to death, the world was shocked; Farkhunda’s murder in March was frenzied, brutal and barbaric. Yet every year hundreds of Afghan women are killed by a stealthy, silent killer that attracts no international protest.

It is breast cancer, a disease that goes undetected and largely untreated in a country where routine screening is impossible and timely treatment, rare. Those lucky enough to be diagnosed while there is still hope have to go abroad to get specialist treatment.

Shinkai Karokhail, was one of them. The 53-year-old mother of four had to leave her home in Kabul, pay for treatment, undergo a double mastectomy and aggressive chemo/radiotherapy to save her life. She is still recovering, but Shinkai knows she is ‘one of the lucky ones’.

She is also an MP and one of the very few Afghan women willing to talk openly about this taboo subject.

“Even friends and educated people don’t want me to mention it, but I think now it is time to speak out and take steps to raise awareness and fight against cancer.”

Shinkai did more than talk; she initiated a breast cancer awareness campaign, picked-up and implemented by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health: “We founded a ‘Let’s Fight Against Cancer’ group to advocate for a cancer centre, and I invited the First Lady  (Mrs. Rula Ghani) to lend her voice and support.”

Three and a half thousand miles away, another Afghan woman is fighting breast cancer, but in a very different way. Dr Zarghuna Taraki specialises in treating the disease at University College Hospital, in London although, like Shinkai, she was born in Kabul. The parliamentarian and the clinician have never met and live very different lives – but they are both Afghan women, both mothers and both passionately committed to tackling a disease that is needlessly killing thousands of people in their country

Zarghuna, whose UK patients have access to excellent treatment, said, “Cancer is a dark area in Afghanistan – not only breast cancer but all cancer – there is certainly no comprehensive awareness campaign. I was talking to some ladies back home and they asked me questions such as ‘Is it possible that a breast can develop a disease?’

“Most women in Afghanistan look to other women, their friends and families, for information. In the villages especially I don’t think they have any knowledge about the meaning of breast lumps or breast cancer –  so they die without ever knowing the reason.  This is very sad but it also makes it harder to learn how widespread breast cancer is when causes of death are unknown.”

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide – it accounts for about 12% percent of all new cancers and 25% of all cancers in women.”

(The former Head of Kabul’s Malalai Hospital, Dr Nasrin Oriakhil  (now Minister for Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled) was once quoted as saying, “There are no precise statistics for breast cancer in Afghanistan; however, we know that there are many patients. Just looking at our hospital, five of our employees have breast cancer and they do not have access to proper treatment.”)

We are sitting in a London café, not far from Warren Street tube station, doing what women the world over do – drink coffee, chatter and share cakes. Zarghuna, who speaks four languages, is telling me about her own struggle simply to practice as a breast cancer physician.

“It’s difficult to say why I became a doctor but I know that I really do want to help people, especially as, for women in Afghanistan you know, it’s not easy for them . . . but I never imagined that I would end up in the UK working as a doctor.

“My childhood was very colourful!  I grew up in a big family – five brothers and a sister. My family was always supportive of me studying and my mother and father always told me that education was vital. Three of my cousins are doctors. We lived in Kabul but went on holiday to villages so I experienced city and rural life.  Unfortunately the situation in Afghanistan got worse . . . so it was not such a hard thing for me to leave.”

Zarghuna qualified as a doctor in Moscow, returning home to work as an obstetrician/gynaecologist.

“But once again the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and I fled the country. I came to the UK in 1998 with my small family, consisting of my husband and 18-month-old daughter.”

With only a few words of English and their old life gone Zarghuna and her husband had to pick up the pieces and start over.  He had been a lawyer. She had been a doctor. It was a low point, but she recalls her husband’s words with a smile: “He said to me you still ARE a doctor!”

dr zarghuna taraki 2Working as a driver to support the family, her husband insisted that she fight to practice medicine again.

“I went to college to learn basic English, then intermediate, followed by high-level English for academic purposes. It was hard, because around this time I also had my second child.”

With the tenacity and courage of so many Afghan women Zarghuna passed her English exams and went on, once more, to qualify as a doctor, working her way up through a variety of clinical attachments, learning about health priorities and rising expectations about cancer treatment.

Clearly a compassionate and highly intelligent woman, Zarghuna cares deeply about her British patients, but part of her is always in Afghanistan, where things are very different, as Dr Karokhail discovered.

“I have tremendous respect for Shinkai Karokhail and what she has done,” says Zarghuna, “because it is not easy to speak about these things publicly there.”

When NATO formally ended its commitment to Afghanistan, after 13 years of conflict, the country that had dominated Western news channels for over a decade, slowly slipped off the international radar. “Our Afghan partners can and will take the fight from here,” said Commander ISAF, General John F Campbell at the departure ceremony. He was referring to insurgency and drugs, but in fact there were many other battles to be fought, against a background of shattered infrastructure and political uncertainty.

Former Medical Director of Kabul’s CURE International Hospital, Dr Jacqui Sinclair, left Afghanistan with her husband Eric in 2008 but remained in contact with colleagues. She welcomed the news that initiatives were afoot to tackle breast cancer adding, “It’s hard for Afghan women to qualify as doctors and they are almost exclusively working as paediatricians or in obstetrics/gynaecology. As it is not ‘appropriate’ for women to see male doctors, and there are no female breast surgeons, the situation is very depressing.”

After  ISAF troops left, many NGO and charity workers followed. Foreign doctors who brought expertise increasingly became targets and several known to the Sinclairs were attacked and killed after they left.

Currently there are no public information campaigns about self-examination, or the screening programmes that would enable early detection and less invasive surgery; nor are there dedicated treatment facilities where the psychological and physical aspects of breast cancer treatment can be delivered side by side.

Afghanistan is a vast, landlocked country – extremely poor and heavily dependent on foreign aid. Its savage beauty may be breathtaking, but without a safe, effective transport network to traverse its challenging terrain, communities are isolated in every sense of the word. For women, denied the socio-economic freedoms of men, it is worse. Solutions that would work in more developed countries are irrelevant in Afghanistan where access and security challenges obviate even the deployment of mobile screening units.

But for a woman suffering from breast cancer, what happens on the global stage is an irrelevance. Her world shrinks to one circumscribed by diagnosis, prognosis and fear. The outlook for sufferers is bleak as Shinkai, despite her education, status and tenacity, discovered.

Conscious that she was an age group that elsewhere warranted routine breast screening she went to India for a mammogram. “We (in Afghanistan) have no such facility or system to take care of our health. In the beginning I was told that there was ‘some calcification’ but a later ultrasound result showed that all was normal.”

Still Shinkai had a feeling that something was amiss. “I felt I had the beginning of a cancer and a few months later I suddenly found that my left breast had changed in size a lot. I went to a doctor and, after a very unprofessional examination; she told me that nothing was wrong. ‘You are absolutely fine’ she said. I tried to convince her that I was sick but she refused to accept it.”

Pressed about the change in breast size Shinkai’s doctor said it was due to breast-feeding – 13 years earlier!

“Three months later, I went to the US and while there my nipple started bleeding. My friend, who is doctor, sent me for mammogram and ultrasound.”

On 8th October 2013, in the USA, she was diagnosed with aggressive, Stage 3 breast cancer and too ill, according to the American doctors, to go back to India for treatment.

For Shinkai the news that she was out of options was a heavy blow.  “I felt like all patients, especially women, but the most depressing part was when I was told they had to remove both my breasts. It is difficult for a women to lose part of her body.”

Sadly, that wasn’t all she’d had to contend with. “The worst part was when the hospital refused to do my test because of the fee. I had to get money from family and friends. It was difficult to get money from Afghanistan. With help from the Afghan Embassy and an NGO this was eventually resolved.

“One of the women’s organisations which has an office in the US called Women for Afghan Women helped me to get money through their account. Everyone sent me a financial contribution toward my treatments – family, friends, members of civil society and government.

“Chemotherapy was the worst. Each stage was very painful but when I was passing through difficult times I thought of cancer patients in Afghanistan, especially those who had no money to pay for treatment and just had to wait to die. When I thought about them, I really understood how lucky I was.”

So what, realistically, can happen? And how quickly?

Soon after the London-based Afghan Women’s Support Forum started its social media activity about breast cancer the CEO of Alem Health, Mr Aschkan Abdul-Malek, got in touch. He wrote, “Our company provides high quality diagnoses for mammograms in Afghanistan through a network of over 400 US, EU, and India-based radiologists. There are plenty of facilities that perform mammograms in Kabul, but awareness on the part of patients is limited, and healthcare spending on screening and preventative care is quite low in general. The breast cancer cases we do see are all Stage 3 or Stage 4, whereas we’d like to diagnose things much earlier.”

He claimed that the problem was compounded by poor standards of service delivered by local radiologists and technicians. “When we first go into a facility, the images being taken by the technicians are often of unacceptable quality for diagnostic use, but we know somewhere a radiologist or someone else has been reading them, so we work with the technicians to get their skills to a global standard so our radiologists can confidently diagnose.

“A mammogram costs about $30 US for a facility to take. We charge a little less, in addition to having an Indian, European, or American doctor read it, usually within three hours. We don’t charge for any of the IT infrastructure, we’re fully private sector and work with private sector hospitals, so unlike aid projects, our entire budget for a year is a fraction of the cost of a Land Cruiser!”

But is an internet-based service really of significant value? Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world so paying for anything – diagnosis, treatment or aftercare – will put help beyond the reach of most women.

The good news is that in October 2014, something unprecedented happened; the country’s new First Lady, Mrs Rula Ghani, accepted Shinkai’s invitation to support the breast cancer campaign she had initiated.

In terms of credibility, that public commitment by the president’s wife was a game changer. Now, through the continuous efforts of Shinkai Karokhail and the First Lady’s Advisor on Health Affairs, Fawzia Alam, a variety of key players have started working together on cancer control. What was initially a loose alliance soon developed into the Afghanistan Cancer Control Coalition (ACCC).

Its co-ordinator, Dr Maihan Abdullah, said from Kabul, “The ACCC is an extraordinary alliance of organisations and individuals committed to working for cancer prevention and control. The political commitment alongside ACCC has given its members new hope in the fight against cancer. In a meeting with H.E. First Lady and the Health Minister, ACCC convinced the Minister to form a Technical Committee consisting of members from ACCC and the Ministry.

“It decided that a Cancer Centre was urgently needed and that efforts should be started as soon as possible for its establishment. ACCC members – a variety of public health specialist, midwives and surgeons  – vowed to provide their expertise voluntarily in the proposed facility and, in subsequent meetings, Dr. Zarghuna will participate from the UK, through Skype, to offer her recommendations.”

THE AFGHAN WOMEN’S SUPPORT FORUM

The Afghan Women’s Support Forum, a UK-based networking group is trying to focus attention on the issue. Its  eclectic membership, a loose alliance of individuals with an interest in Afghanistan and its women, was brought together by Baroness Fiona Hodgson.

Fiona, whose first visit to the country was nearly her last, escaped death by hiding in a wardrobe during the siege of the Intercontinental Hotel in 2011. But she has been back since and, like all members of AWSF, is conscious of how big a divide there is between what western women can expect when serious illness strikes and what happens in Afghanistan.

She said, “The group relies on its membership to provide intelligence about what issues are of most importance to Afghan women. We don’t want them to be forgotten. When Zarghuna told us about the lack of provision for identifying and treating breast cancer, and the human tragedies associated with that, it became a priority for us. I have several friends in the UK who have had breast cancer and it was further personalised for me because I know Shinkai, so this dreadful disease had a ‘human face’.”

First published in UK Progressive 7 June 2015.

 

 

Can charities afford to abandon stereotypes?

An interesting proposition aired in Third Sector this week.

The magazine  reports that “It would be risky for homelessness charities to use less stereotypical imageThird Sector - stereotypess of homeless people in their fundraising materials because they would not match up with the images in the minds of potential donors, according to new research.”

So how are stereotypes created? By either narratives or images – and as we all know ‘a picture is worth a 1,000 words’ etc.

But are the ‘words’ that a picture tells honest? Fair? Accurate? And does it matter, as long as  the money rolls in?

I’m reminded of TFL’s advertisement advising passengers who contemplate travelling  without a ticket that inspectors are easy to spot because ‘they look just like you’.

I wonder how many homeless people also ‘look just like you’? Search on iStock for images of homelessness ( link ) and you’ll find the usual suspects – men with sleeping bags,  gaunt figures in hoodies. . .  a few outstretched hands, empty food bowls, doe eyed children. There are some  less obvious images there but they look oddly out of place – and that, presumably, is the point.

Stereotypes do not drop ‘like the gentle rain from heaven’ – they are manufactured; constructs, honed and shaped for a purpose by people whose raison d’etre is to  craft extreme shortcuts.  It’s not surprising that in an age of fast moving communications technology such shorthand is employed. Charity is big business and competition for donations fierce.

Every Christmas captive TV audiences  are bludgeoned into ‘giving’ – assaulted relentlessly by  images of victims needing food, medical aid, water, accommodation. Some viewers are simply moved to give. Others are discomfited. Increasing numbers just become angry at the transparent manipulation.

Of course there’s a moral dimension to all this because, like it or not, stereotypes are educational (sic); they inform our perceptions of the world. The newspapers, magazines, films and charity flyers that depict  ex-servicemen as amputees or PTSD sufferers imply causal linkages that are at best disproportionate  and at worst  dangerous. ( You won’t find too many of these images on recruiting posters!)

PRs and ‘creatives’ are frequently allowed to exercise  power without responsibility. Campaign success is reduced crudely to reach and impact – and because  reach can be driven by budget,  wealthy organisations  will always have an advantage over smaller counterparts. (Wildcard creativity and random viral take-up aside!)

Impact, however, is a complex animal! Which is why, in that parallel universe where power and responsibility go hand-in-hand, images that are so crudely powerful  that they deal a knockout blow, are used sparingly, in context, and with caution.

Instead of warning that use of ‘less stereotypical images could be risky’ charities should toughen up and have the courage to tackle the issue head on. Use images of course, but intelligently and responsibly; put them in context – make people think, force them to consider why the person who looks ‘just like them’ can also be hungry, sick, depressed or homeless- even though they aren’t lying on a sleeping bag in the High Street.

(c) Glyn Strong

 

 

International Women’s Day

“When women are free to exercise their political, legal, and socioeconomic rights, we are all better off and we are all empowered” – Khaled Hosseini

Heartwarming to read and receive messages from so many friends worldwide – both personally and in support of causes and organisations that we all support.

A growing number of men stepped up to the plate, including author Khaled Hosseini who wrote, “The world has come a long way in the fight for women’s rights, but there is still a long way to go. In too many places around the globe, including my birthplace of Afghanistan, gender equality remains elusive.The struggle continues for millions of women. Today ( March 8th)  is International Women’s Day and it is a chance to celebrate the extraordinary achievements and contributions of women. It is a good day to raise awareness of the need for gender equality, and a good day to remember that this is not a feminist issue. When women are free to exercise their political, legal, and socioeconomic rights, we are all better off and we are all empowered” ( More HERE )

And then there were the Afghan men who wore burqas for a day . . .

burqa-ap

 

Nothing will change overnight, but as long as small pockets of hope exist and individuals in every country are prepared to challenge the unacceptable we will all have something to celebrate and be proud of.