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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 June 23; 334(7607): 1324.
PMCID: PMC1895644
In and Out of Hospital

Back from Basra

James Owen Drife, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology Leeds

When your son joins the Territorial Army it seems no big deal at first. Weekends on Salisbury Plain are healthy exercise for a lawyer. From time to time he helps to fire off a royal salute or invites you to a rather jolly mess dinner.

Then reality bites. Volunteers are wanted for a tour of duty “somewhere overseas.” Not you, son, surely? Tell them you're an essential worker. Oh. OK. I suppose it's a matter of honour. That and no loss of salary, he replies. The government is desperate, after all.

The farewell, last September, was a cliché repeated down the centuries but no less affecting for that. Mum holding back tears, handshake from dad, laconic smile and a wave from the young man. Mum now says she thought she'd never see him again.

You keep checking for email. Communication with Iraq is fitful but you begin to notice a pattern. A brief, unexpected phone call just to say hello. Then silence for a few days. Finally, a short item on the evening news. A British soldier has been killed and the next of kin have been informed.

What does “being informed” entail, now that telegrams have been abolished? An army car waiting when you get home from work? Mum sometimes thought she heard the doorbell in the night. Then, thank goodness, another email: “Day off, relaxing. Biggest danger is sunburn.”

Here, the biggest danger is losing friends in hospital management. They tell us we can't afford more midwives because there's no money. When I remind the meeting that we can afford £3m (€4.4m; $5.9m) a day for the prime minister's war, everyone looks uncomfortable. Their silence implies: there's nothing we can do, so why mention it?

My silence implies: that's democracy for you.

After six months the veteran returns, suntanned. He seems taller. Photos on his laptop show his comrades with camouflaged Land Rovers. And son in battledress with his number and blood group in big letters on the chest.

I feel smaller. Did I protest against the war? No, I left that to others. My father, wounded in 1944, and my son have done things I'll never achieve. My dad's generation set up the NHS only three years after coming home. My generation, combat free, can't even run it properly.

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