Andrew Vine: A chance to honour our debt of gratitude to Armed Forces

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AT THIS moment, somewhere in the Mediterranean, men and women of the Royal Navy are doing their utmost to save the lives of desperate migrants trafficked by criminal gangs.

In Kenya and Afghanistan, the Army is training local forces to combat terrorism that constantly threatens to reach out to these shores, and here at home the RAF patrols the skies, ever-watchful for incursions by a belligerent Russia.

Night and day, our forces watch over us all, often out of sight and also out of mind, too rarely thought of by a population 
pre-occupied with the routines of everyday life.

But this week, we should stop and reflect on what our Forces do for us, and make the time to give profound and heartfelt thanks.

Yesterday marked the start of Armed Forces Week, culminating on Saturday in Armed Forces Day, when events across the country will be devoted to the men and women in uniform.

Yorkshire always puts on a splendid show for Armed Forces Day, and this year will be no exception, with events scheduled throughout the county.

Our connections to the Forces are strong, deeply rooted in history, and those in uniform continue to hold a special place in Yorkshire people’s hearts, as they have always done.

Saturday is an opportunity to salute those who serve, whether at home or abroad, on land, sea or in the air, on ceremonial duties outside Buckingham Palace, or in some mosquito-infested hellhole where civilians tread at their peril.

We should show our thanks proudly and without a trace of self-consciousness, cheer the parades as they pass by and shake the hands of those who man stalls and mount displays.

There will be among the service personnel those who have seen action, most recently in Afghanistan, and quite possibly witnessed the loss or maiming of comrades.

That horribly protracted conflict, as well as the ill-judged invasion of Iraq with its bloody aftermath, raised public awareness of the forces and fostered a reawakening of pride in them.

The bravery, suffering and loss that those conflicts wrought was brought home vividly to the public by the sight of Union Flag-draped coffins being borne from military aircraft, and the names of young men who grew up in the 21st century being added to memorials commemorating the fallen of the First and Second World Wars.

It is a happy coincidence for awareness of Armed Forces Week that the Queen will add her own salute to the fallen on a state visit to Germany by laying a wreath at Berlin’s Central Memorial tomorrow.

We should aim to make Armed Forces Day as widely supported as Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.

The increasingly widespread observance of a silence to mark the anniversary of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, as well as increased sales of poppies, suggest that the public would be receptive to such an idea.

Gratitude towards the Forces and admiration of those who serve appear to be more widely shared than they have been for generations.

We can only hope the knowledge of that is some comfort to those who survived the recent conflicts, but with their lives irreparably changed.

There is another very good reason for supporting Armed Forces Day, and that is to send the clearest possible message to the Government that its risks the wrath of the electorate if it fails the services.

Military chiefs have already warned of the “hollowing out” of the Armed Forces if seemingly relentless rounds of cost-cutting continue, leaving Army, Navy and Air Force without the capabilities to do what is asked of them.

Taking the Armed Forces for granted while at the same time starving them of resources is a failing that spans the political divide. There is little sign that a Conservative government is going to be any more generous than its Labour predecessor.

Looking after the Forces is not only a matter of providing sufficient funding for hardware. Equally important is a commitment – emotional as well as financial – to the military covenant, that bond of honour which pledges in exchange for our Armed Forces risking or even giving their lives in the service of their country, they will be looked after.

There have been some grievous breaches of that in recent years, even in the midst of the worst fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Men on combat missions were receiving messages that when their deployment was over, they faced redundancy.

Such crassness is, hopefully, past and there are concrete pledges from the Government that the covenant will be honoured. That is no less than our Armed Forces deserve, and by turning out this Saturday we can all send a message to politicians that woe betide them if they let service personnel down.

We owe the men and women in uniform a huge amount of gratitude. Showing our support for them this week is the least we can do.