The Queen's Birthday Parade on Horse Guards yesterday does, perhaps, give us an opportunity to reflect on the absolutely crucial role played by our Armed Forces in both ceremonial and operational duties.
It is worth remembering, too, that some of those on parade had recently returned from active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Colour was being trooped by the Welsh Guards it is almost certain that our troops in Afghanistan were under fire in Helmand Province. Indeed, five members of the Second Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, of which I have been Colonel-in-Chief for 31 years, have tragically lost their lives in the last few days.
It was only in February that I visited the battalion, with their families, to wish them God speed before their deployment. I have been dreading such bad news ever since and, as a father myself, I offer my deepest possible sympathy to the loved ones of these five brave young men.
They have joined more than 275 comrades who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, each leaving behind a devastated family suffering unbearable anguish. Perhaps they can draw some comfort from the fact that their loved ones represented all that is best in the British Armed Forces and that, so often, they laid down their lives for their friends and colleagues. Their selfless and dedicated service is an example to us all.
Across the world our servicemen and women, including our Reserve Forces, are operating in hostile and stark environments, enduring real hardships and danger on a daily basis.
We hear about the battles and the fighting in which many of them are engaged - and, incidentally, we must remember that many personnel from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are conducting essential flying operations in Afghanistan, often under intense enemy fire, to support troops on the ground. Nor should we ever forget the unique role played by the Special Forces, unseen and unheard, and the equally unique support provided by their remarkable families and loved ones.
But sometimes I think it is all too easy to forget that our Armed Forces' role is so much wider. Military force is only one aspect of their work.
For instance, in both Iraq and Afghanistan there are countless examples of civil projects in which the military has been involved. They are building bridges and schools. They are repairing irrigation channels, making it possible for crops to be grown again.
They are providing medical care, fresh water and sanitation for a local population that has been without these basic services we often take for granted. That is what reconstruction is all about and it is what our Armed Forces are so skilled at providing.
This crucial work is enhancing security and stability, while delivering real improvements in day-to-day life for the local population. And, of course, staff from the Foreign Office and Department for International Development, working in partnership with our Armed Forces, have a vital role to play. I have been encouraged by recent discussions in parliament and elsewhere to refine civilian/military coordination on the ground.
This sort of work is not limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. At any given time, British Forces are involved in a wide range of missions throughout the world, maintaining peace and security, and helping to rebuild broken communities. Sometimes this is done on a long-term basis, such as in Cyprus, the Falklands and in Kosovo.
On other occasions, they are called upon to provide life-saving emergency help. Just two years ago, military personnel helped to evacuate thousands of Britons from the conflict in Lebanon. In 2005, our Forces sent specialist teams to help after the devastating earthquake in Pakistan. These missions, though short, serve to remind us that our Armed Forces have skills as engineers, logisticians and medics that are almost unparalleled.
And when it comes to medics, we owe them an immense debt of gratitude for the tireless and dedicated way in which they provide huge amounts of support to the wounded troops, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also back in the United Kingdom at Selly Oak Hospital and at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court.
As well as giving humanitarian help, our Forces work closely with other countries helping to train their military. Two years ago, in Sierra Leone, I saw at first hand how British forces are contributing to an international military training team to help build the foundations for peace and security within the region, and I know that similar activity is taking place in many countries throughout the world.
The fact that our Armed Forces are such an important partner in these peacekeeping and humanitarian programmes is due to their adaptability and expertise.
These attributes are as important at home as they are abroad. For example, our Armed Forces are always on standby to provide support for our Emergency Services. Day in and day out, Royal Air Force and Navy pilots battle rough seas and bad weather to provide life-saving air-sea rescue, and I remember only too well the important role played by British Forces in the aftermath of recent flooding disasters such as at Boscastle and Tewkesbury.
Reflecting on these many and varied roles should remind us that none of this would be possible without the consistent and unfailing support of Armed Forces' families. This is brought home to me again and again when I meet my regiments after they have returned from operations and I am able to present them with their campaign medals.
This simple yet poignant act of recognition is as important for the families as it is for the soldiers, sailors and airmen themselves. On such occasions it is possible to show appreciation for their understanding and patience which should never be underestimated. At times, when military personnel are deployed to dangerously challenging locations for months at a time, it is the love and support of their families that give them the strength and determination to succeed.
I know that our Armed Forces are often called upon to do the most remarkable things on our country's behalf. They operate in all sorts of environments and extremes across the world, against every conceivable threat, and at great risk to themselves in a risk-averse age, sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. Their success is testimony to their hard work, dedication and tenacity and they are an immense credit to this country.