Enlisted in the Royal Air Force on 2009, Mr D received the rank of Senior Air Craftsmen (SAC) in the No. 3 Squadron RAF Regiment until his discharge on 12 May 2014 and suffers from Non-Freezing Cold Injury (NFCI) because of his service in the forces.
Mr D explains, “At age 19, I joined the RAF in 2009. I had always wanted to be a soldier for as long as I could remember. In college, the RAF came in to give a presentation and I was immediately sold. I started as a Phase 1 Air Craftsman and worked my way up to Senior Air Craftsman.
In January 2010, I was based on a one-week Basic Training exercise in the Meiktila Flight, Regimental Training Squadron B, Stanford Training Area, Norfolk. Before the exercise began, it was forecast very heavy snow. The older lads at camp had been obtaining weather forecasts and winding us up about how cold it was predicted to be. It was forecast that temperatures were expected to drop as low as minus 16 degrees Celsius. When we arrived onto exercise, there were several inches of snow on the ground.
On a typical day, we rose at sunrise at around 5 am. We completed our personal admin, which is when each service person carries out personal checks such as their own hygiene. For our personal admin to our feet, this included applying foot powder and changing into clean, dry socks. We also made a hot breakfast from our ration packs. We then spent the whole day out on a different part of the exercise. As night fell, we patrolled back to the harbour. It was at this stage, usually at around 8 pm, that we had the opportunity to cook a hot meal from our ration packs, tend to our personal admin and get to bed around 10 pm. This would be interrupted by a 2-hour STAG duty shift in between. Usually, on return to the harbour, we changed into our “warm kit”. On one occasion, I was required on STAG duty at 8 pm which meant I didn’t have time to complete my personal admin. I, therefore, ended up doing STAG duty in my wet kit.
We spent around 25% of the exercise doing organised river crossings which was an important part of basic training however we were not given time to complete additional personal admin after river crossings. We had to continue patrolling and wait until we reached the harbour area where we slept and were stationed at night to change. The snow had seeped through the thin, leather-like boots. My feet were wet constantly.
It quickly became apparent that we were unable to take steps to keep our feet warm and dry.
We slept in a shell scrape. This was a hole dug into the ground inside the wood line. It was about the size of a small double bed. This offered basic rain protection but did not offer protection from the wind and the cold.
There was also no process to dry our boots, so these remained wet. I made the effort to always put on clean, dry socks. My feet remained dry for around 10 minutes before the wet boots soaked through and my feet were wet again.
At the end of the first day of this exercise, I was freezing cold. I noticed that my feet were tingling and numb. After the first few days, I could not feel the ends of my toes due to pins and needles. When I was in my sleeping bag, my feet felt like blocks of ice not attached to my body. I was terrified of being re-flighted or downgraded so for the first few days I was determined to “soldier on”. I continued to be diligent with my personal admin and keep as warm and dry as possible, although this was often impossible.
I was competitive and ambitious. I knew that training would be tough and thought this was another example of a time I was required to soldier on through pain to achieve my dream of joining the RAF.
My symptoms were bothersome at the time but I thought my symptoms would resolve when I had the opportunity to return to camp and warm up. As I had not received training on NFCI, I did not appreciate that this could have long-lasting effects. If I had known that NFCI could affect me for the rest of my life, I would have been more likely to report my injury earlier on.
At the end of the week, I completed the exercise and returned home for the weekend. I had bruising all over my feet from the cold. I was in an extremely bad way.
My mum encouraged me that this was not normal exposure to cold and told me to seek medical attention.
4 or 5 other personnel had already had problems and come off this exercise due to cold injury. When I returned to base, I discovered that they had been downgraded. I was extremely reluctant to come forward but a Corporal spotted that I was hobbling when I returned to base and he encouraged me to go to the medical centre straight away. I was asked about my symptoms and was instantly re-flighted. I was downgraded for 6 months. I was devastated.
I was referred to the Institute of Naval Medicine (INM) to the Cold Injury Clinic. They ran through the motions of testing me for cold injury but did not diagnose me with NFCI. I was a young, naïve lad when joining the military and it was the forces that turned me into the military man that I now am. I had not heard anything about NFCI, frostbite, or other more common cold-weather injuries before joining the RAF. I was so young when it happened that I followed their advice like a sheep. As I had not received training on NFCI, I did not appreciate that this could have long-lasting effects. We did not want to be seen as weak or to be seen as giving up on the exercise. It is likely that if we reported an injury, we would be downgraded. I was therefore fearful to come forward. A stigma formed about those who came forward about NFCI after this flight not wanting to complete the rest of the exercise and for being a “cop out”.
I was issued LOWA boots and was able to carry on my career. I finally passed out into the RAF in July 2010 and was deployed on to a field squadron where I completed 2 tours of Afghanistan.
Since leaving the RAF I am still left with the effects of my NFCI.
I have two young boys and I must restrict playing outside with them to warm weather days and would struggle to play outside with them in extremely cold conditions, such as playing in the snow.
I used to enjoy playing football and I now must restrict this to one summer charity football match, and no longer play in cold conditions.
I also cycle and hike, but I am restricted to only be able to do these in the summer months. This makes the wintertime particularly challenging when I cannot do the hobbies that I love.
My wife and I currently must pay more per month in gas and electricity during the winter months as I have the heating on constantly to protect my feet.
For the first year after leaving service in 2014 I worked in Engineering. I am concerned about what engineering jobs I would be able to do if I lost my current role. Most of the alternative jobs I see advertised involve significant periods of work outdoors without the opportunity to come inside and rewarm. I could cope with my symptoms in the summer months, but I would be unable to work in the winter months. I feel unable to change jobs to other outdoor engineering roles because of my injury.
During service, we were not provided with any information about the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS) or War Pension Scheme. The general attitude in the military was against discussing injuries. I heard by word of mouth that friends got compensation from AFCS for severe injuries such as broken legs or complete hearing loss. However, I did not know anything about the AFCS myself to consider whether it applied to my NFCI. I did not have detailed knowledge about the criteria to apply, such as the timescales and deadlines for bringing a claim during service.
I applied for an NFCI award via AFCS and was told that, although it was admitted because my injury was sustained in service, this was not at a serious enough level to attract compensation under the scheme. I did not think I would be successful in appealing and thought this was the end of the matter. I thought the AFCS scheme replaced the civil court route for military injuries.
I thought the AFCS was a separate military scheme and that you could not claim for military injuries on “civvy street”. I had not heard of anybody who had brought a civil claim for military injuries. Most personnel when they leave keep all that very personal and private. I thought that as I had been unsuccessful in my AFCS claim that was all I could do.
When I made the AFCS claim, my claim was rejected as it was not deemed serious enough under the tariffs that make up the AFCS award not because it was out of time.
After I left service in 2014, and as my symptoms continued to flare up in the cold weather, I occasionally searched online about NFCI. It was not until I saw Hugh James’ Facebook advert specialising in NFCI claims that I considered giving my claim for NFCI another chance. They explained to me that I could still bring a claim in the civil courts and were specialists in this area of law. On discussing my chances of proceeding with a claim with Hugh James, I instructed them immediately.
Hugh James has a team that specialises in military claims and was able to expertly guide me through my claim. I was able to speak with a solicitor who advised me more about NFCI and my right to bring a claim in the courts, even though my AFCS claim had been unsuccessful previously. Hugh James dealt with everything for me, requesting my records, taking details, and gathering evidence from me to build my claim, preparing detailed documents like my Witness Statement, instructing a barrister to value my claim, and organising a settlement meeting with the representatives for the Ministry of Defence. Initially, I was offered a low value to settle my claim. My solicitor took time to explain the offer and why they recommended making a higher counter-offer. As a result, we secured a higher settlement overall.”
“The experience of Mr D is all too common. The MoD often downgrades those suffering from a cold injury, which means they can’t reach their full potential in their chosen career.
Many of my clients are completely unaware that they have the right to bring a civil claim for a cold injury. Those suffering may be directed to bring a claim under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme, but these claims are often rejected as the injury wasn’t felt to be severe enough. It’s striking that an injury felt by some to be trivial has a significant effect on the personal, social, and work life of those affected
Being rejected under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme doesn’t prevent you from bringing a successful civil claim. Both claims are completely separate.
At Hugh James, we’ve successfully brought civil claims for people who have been rejected under the AFCS or War Pension schemes. I’d encourage anyone with a cold injury to seek legal advice on their options at the earliest opportunity, as further delays can prevent a claim being brought”