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The cold truth: The Commonwealth soldier and Non-Freezing Cold Injuries in the British Military

When it comes to serving in the military, soldiers often brave harsh conditions and endure exceptional challenges. But what happens when these men and women return home with injuries that aren’t immediately visible? For Commonwealth soldiers serving in the British military, one such issue which is often overlooked is Non-Freezing Cold Injuries (NFCI).

What is NFCI?

Imagine that you’re on exercise or deployed to a freezing cold environment, in potentially the lowest temperatures you've ever been exposed to. You might not realise it at the time, but the bitter cold is slowly taking its toll on your body. Weeks or even months later, you begin experiencing debilitating pain, numbness, and tingling in your extremities. You realise something is not quite right, but when you seek support you’re met with scepticism.

Challenges for Commonwealth soldiers

This is the reality for many Commonwealth soldiers. Despite serving alongside their British counterparts and facing the same environmental challenges, there exists a disparity in how NFCI cases are perceived and addressed. 

While British soldiers with similar symptoms are often believed and receive appropriate treatment and support, Commonwealth soldiers frequently encounter disbelief and dismissal. This is despite the military’s own guidelines acknowledging that “African and Caribbean personnel are two to four times more likely to suffer a cold injury due to their physiological response to cold” in JSP 375

As a military injury lawyer, I've personally dealt with cases where the injured soldier was dismissed as being “a fake” and as “making it up” without the medic having even met them!

Why the discrepancy?

Some argue that it stems from a lack of awareness and understanding of NFCI within the military hierarchy. Others point to systemic biases and cultural differences that influence perceptions of pain and injury. Whatever the reasons, the consequences are significant. Not only do affected soldiers endure physical suffering, but they also face psychological distress from being doubted and treated as though they are insignificant. 

What needs to be done?

Addressing this issue requires a multi-faceted approach. Firstly, there needs to be greater education and training on NFCI recognition and management across the military. This includes raising awareness among commanders and medical personnel about the symptoms and long-term effects of NFCI. Additionally, efforts should be made to foster a culture of trust and empathy, where all soldiers feel comfortable reporting injuries and seeking assistance without fear of disbelief or reprisal. 

Furthermore, there must be accountability at all levels of the chain of command. Instances of disbelief and mistreatment of soldiers with NFCI should be thoroughly investigated and measures should be implemented to prevent reoccurrence.

Supporting those affected

Ultimately, recognizing and addressing the challenges faced by Commonwealth soldiers with NFCI is not just a matter of fairness; it’s a moral imperative. These men and women have made the commitment to serve our country. They deserve to be believed, supported and treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to their comrades.  

This Commonwealth Day, find out more about our expertise in supporting armed forces personnel suffering from illness or injury.