Deep in the heart of Abbey Wood, the Defence Support Chain Operations and Movements’ Compassionate Cell is an unremarkable looking unit – a pair of office desks with a six-foot-high map of UK air fields and a television screen playing rolling world news. But the job the small team does is vital – bringing people home in their hour of need.
The team of ten, from all three services, work in pairs in shifts which means the unit is active 24 hours a day, every day. There is never a moment when serving sailors, marines, soldiers, airmen or civil servants on operations do not have the comfort of knowing that, if the worst were to happen to close family members back home, this team would spring into action to get them home to be at their loved ones’ side. This reassurance allows them to concentrate fully on the task in hand.
With British military personnel and civil servants on active service across the globe, the unit can be tasked with anything from picking a soldier out of a forward operating base in the middle of Afghanistan, to getting a member of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary off a ship in the middle of the ocean.
No hard and fast regulations can be laid down for the granting of compassionate travel; each case requires individual, objective and sensitive assessment.
Wing Commander Guy Lendon, Head of the Compassionate Cell, said:
Every family has a little card with details of the JCCC and, should the need arise, they know they can get loved ones home as soon as possible, taking away one of the stresses of being separated.
The authority for travel at public expense on compassionate grounds rests entirely with the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) in Imjin Barracks, Gloucester, or, for civilians, the Employee Wellbeing Section of Defence Business Services. Then it’s the job of the Compassionate Cell to organise the transport.
After negotiations with medical staff, the urgency of travel needed is agreed as, in this business, hours and even minutes really do count.
The cases are classified either as compassionate Alphas or Bravos. The Alphas need to be home by the fastest possible means; the Bravos need to be home by a specific date.
Although the use of existing military air transport is the default setting, for compassionate Alphas it’s any means necessary to get the person home in time. This includes buying seats on commercial aircraft, arranging special flights of military aircraft and even hiring taxis for transport from airport to hospital.
A couple of recent cases give a flavour of the job’s importance.
Last summer a Royal Marine in a Forward Operating Base in Helmand province, Afghanistan was categorised as a Compassionate Alpha due to serious illness of a member of his family. Due to the base’s remoteness, he had missed the last military transport aircraft by two hours with the next one 24 hours later.
One of the C-130 Hercules aircraft based in Afghanistan was tasked to fly the Marine to Minhad Airbase in the United Arab Emirates. The Compassionate Cell booked a civilian flight from Dubai to Manchester leaving two hours after the arrival of the C-130. This flight arrived at Manchester airport where there was a taxi waiting to take him to the hospital where his next of kin was.
The total time from notification to arrival at the hospital was only 20 hours.
In another case a soldier on exercise in Canada was told his father-in-law was seriously ill in a Nottingham hospital – he was deemed an Alpha case.
The fastest way to get him back to the UK was by a commercial flight from Calgary to London Heathrow. At Heathrow he was met by a member of the Civilian Airport Detachment – military movements personnel who serve the London area – and transferred to a waiting military Agusta 109 helicopter.
The helicopter landed him on the sports field at Nottingham University, from where he was taken by military transport straight to the hospital.
From leaving Canada to arriving at the hospital took 17-and-a-half hours.
Wg Cdr Lendon said:
The people we move are not just numbers to the staff of the Compassionate Cell. The men and women who work there care deeply about getting these people home, because as serving Service personnel themselves, they know that one day it could be them needing to get back home in a hurry.
If, on the odd occasion, personnel don’t get back in time to say goodbye to their loved ones, the staff on the unit really take a knock; they put everything into getting that individual home as quickly as possible.