Be proud of your uniform: Brown leads the backlash against public abuse as the RAF is accused of caving in
By MATTHEW HICKLEY and JULIE MOULT
Last updated at 23:51 07 March 2008
Honoured: Flight Lieutenant Michelle Goodman and Corporal David Hayden yesterday
MPs, community leaders and Forces rank and file condemned the decision to bar personnel at RAF Wittering from wearing their uniforms in nearby Peterborough, following haranguing and harassment from locals.
Military chiefs were accused of being too scared of causing offence to small minorities and urged to face the abuse down with a high-profile parade through the town.
Mr Brown said: "All our armed forces should be able to - and be encouraged to - wear their uniform in public and have the respect and gratitude of the British people for the huge commitment to public service they show.
"I encourage the local police to back up our armed forces so that not only can our armed forces wear their uniforms in public, but they should have the gratitude of the British public for the work they do."
The Prime Minister commissioned a report due out later this month which is expected to recommend more widespread wearing of military uniforms in public to boost awareness of the armed forces.
Conservative leader David Cameron said police should come down 'extremely hard' on people targeting members of the armed forces in the streets.
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"I think it's appalling that that happens,' he he told BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show. 'It shouldn't happen and service personnel should feel confident about wearing their uniforms in public.
"The overwhelming majority of the British people think what they do is extremely brave and professional and we're really proud of them."
Despite the growing protests, the Ministry of Defence insisted the ban would remain in force, but said it would work with police and town hall chiefs in the hope that it could be lifted in future.
The row erupted on the day RAF personnel were recognised for extreme gallantry in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Flight Lieutenant Michelle Goodman, 31, who became the first woman to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for landing her helicopter under heavy fire in Basra to recover a casualty, said: 'I'm very proud to wear the uniform and I think most people are very proud to be in the military."
The base: RAF Wittering, north of Peterborough, where personnel have been advised not to wear uniform in public
And 29-year-old Corporal David Hayden of the RAF Regiment, who won the Military Cross for carrying a wounded comrade to safety, said: "I'm proud of this uniform because it identifies me as a serviceman, as a protector of the Sovereign.
"I'm proud of it because the RAF Regiment has made me what I am today - a Military Cross winner. And no one can take that away."
The Mail revealed details yesterday of the uniform ban imposed on all 2,000 personnel by Group Captain Rowena Atherton, station commander at Wittering.
The MoD defended her decision yesterday - while stressing that no other similar bans are in force in the UK - citing "a number of incidents of verbal abuse, taunts and harassment of military personnel."
It said the situation was serious enough for RAF Police to fear for the safety of personnel, but would not reveal details. The MoD stressed that the abuse did not come from any particular community such as Muslims, but was from 'a cross-section."
In Peterborough yesterday, there were reports that military medics working at the city hospital had suffered abuse, along with young Sea Cadets walking through the town centre in uniform being branded 'murderers'.
But there appeared to be a backlash against the abuse. One soldier working at a recruitment office in Peterborough was treated to spontaneous applause in the street outside, and motorists passing RAF Wittering sounded their horns in support.
The city's Conservative MP Stewart Jackson called for the uniform ban to be rescinded immediately, claiming it is a "sledgehammer to crack a nut".
Tory MP and former Army infantry commander Patrick Mercer called the ban "an over-reaction which plays into the hands of our enemies."
A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said: 'Our soldiers should not be either ashamed or afraid of wearing their uniforms in public.
"If they are verbally abused we would urge the police to intervene without delay."
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Pride on parade: Men and women from RAF Wittering march through Peterborough... where they have been told to stick to civilian clothes when off duty
Gerald Howarth, chairman of the All-Party RAF Group and MP for the military town of Aldershot, said: "The RAF is performing magnificently in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are in the thick of it, but I think the service has been subjected to a culture of political correctness.
"I hope this ban will be quickly rescinded, and they will continue to wear their uniforms with pride."
Labour MP Quentin Davies, whose constituency borders RAF Wittering, backed calls to end the uniform ban and said the situation is "deeply disturbing."
He said there must never be nogo areas for those going about their lawful business, "least of all for those wearing the Queen's uniform."
But the head of the RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy backed Group Captain Atherton, saying she had been 'absolutely right' to impose the ban, based on advice from RAF Police.
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