Troops pledge to wear uniform with pride

SERVICEMEN returning from a gruelling six-month tour in Afghanistan last night pledged to wear their uniforms with pride on the streets of East Anglia.

Laurence Cawley

SERVICEMEN returning from a gruelling six-month tour in Afghanistan last night pledged to wear their uniforms with pride on the streets of East Anglia.

The vow comes after a political storm erupted over advice given to airmen and airwoman at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire against wearing their uniforms in public in Peterborough to avoid being insulted.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown joined the debate urging Britain's armed forces to wear their uniforms in public and condemned any abuse of them by people opposed to conflicts in Iraq and Afganistan.

Returning 15 Squadron gunners of the RAF Regiment, who yesterday received medals for their six-month tour in Afghanistan, seemed bemused that the wearing of uniforms in public become an issue.

But the RAF Honington-based gunners promised to wear their uniforms with pride when out in public and said they had always been well received in major towns in the area - including Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich, Thetford and Norwich.

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The pledge came as the squadron, which was due to be disbanded at the end of the month, learned it had won a reprieve and would continue to play an important operational role into the foreseeable future.

Specialist Aircraftman Keith Reeve, who is now looking forward to holidays in Spain and Wales with his wife Caroline and two-year-old daughter Isabel, said: “I live in Bury St Edmunds and I have to travel into work. I've never had a problem. In fact there seems to quite a lot of respect and it is a very supportive area. The main thing today though is that we've all come home safe.”

Flight Lieutenant Phil Skorge, who married just three weeks before heading out to Kandahar Airbase, described the tour as “chasing shadows” because rather than meeting head on in a fire fight, the Taliban tended to leave explosive devices in the path of vehicles or fired missiles towards the base from a distance.

On learning about the storm over uniforms, Flt Lt Skorge, 31, said: “The level of pride people have here in wearing their uniforms is great. There might be a small number of people out there who don't like to see us in uniforms but they're not worth bothering about.

“What I've seen is a lot of support. We've had a lot of messages of support and the boxes we were sent - well, it makes such a difference for the guys to receive any mail whatsoever.”

Flt Lt Danny Couzens, spokesman for RAF Honington, said they “actively encouraged” their gunners to wear their uniforms in the Thetford and Bury St Edmunds areas.

“In the days of the IRA we had to hide away and it was silly to be seen downtown in case we became a target. But in this day and age, it is important that people know who we are. We get admiration from the older generation, but between the ages of ten to 30-year-old, it is general indifference,” he said.

They were supported in their pledge by Air Marshall Sir Reginald Harland, of Bury St Edmunds, who described the situation in Peterborough as “extraordinary”.

“In East Anglia our forces have done extraordinarily well and the support for them has been very strong. What happened in Peterborough was an extraordinary thing - it must have been a few hooligans.”

Nigel Aitkens, St Edmundsbury Borough Council cabinet member, said because Bury St Edmunds was the regimental headquarters of the Royal Anglians, uniformed personnel were a common feature of the town.

“If any of the RAF Regiment are in uniform they would receive a warm welcome here. Its history as a regimental town makes it a place comfortable with uniform.”

Officials from RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall added that it was general US Air Force advice for personnel not to wear uniform whilst downtown in any foreign country because of security reasons. However, there was no specific uniform policy for the two American bases in Suffolk.

“We could be targeted by people who do not like what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we are not aware of any problems locally,” said Technical Sgt Jill Lavoie.

In 2006 the 23 Engineer regiment (Air Assault) moved into new barracks at Woodbridge airfield, a few miles outside Woodbridge.

Nigel Barratt, the town's mayor, said residents in Woodbridge were very proud to have the Army close by and occasionally soldiers in uniform were seen in the town.

Mr Barratt said: “We ask the Army to do a job and I respect them for doing their job and I am quite happy for them to wear uniforms in the town.

“There was a very good turn out when the soldiers paraded through the town last year and they organised a Fun Day at Rock Barracks.

“They have never given us any trouble and they contribute to the local community - they decorated some of the rooms in the Deben Family Centre.”

Bob Russell, MP for garrison town Colchester, said he was not aware of any such incidents in his constituency and called for people to show respect for those in uniform.

He said: “Fortunately, I don't think this is a Colchester problem. (Peterborough) is not the same as a garrison town where the barracks are part of the town and the soldiers are a part of its life.

“Wearing a uniform is something that we should all take pride in and I'm unaware of any incidents where members of the armed forces have been verbally abused in Colchester.

“I'm not complacent - far from it - representing a garrison town is an honour and I would be most upset if there were such incidents here.”

Mr Russell said that although he had voted against the war in Iraq, he strongly supported the armed forces and praised their courage.

He added: “It wasn't their decision to invade Iraq - I voted against it but support the troops when it's going on.

“The courage of the members of the armed forces is somewhat different to that of the person or people who made this abuse.”

Prior to 1998, service personnel were advised against wearing their uniforms in public because of the risk from the IRA during the Northern Ireland troubles.

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