They serve their country with pride and are ready to put their lives on the line. Yet RAF personnel have been repaid with volleys of abuse in the street. So bad is the problem that servicemen and women from RAF Wittering have been ordered not to wear uniform in public. They were told to keep a low profile in nearby Peterborough following seven months of verbal attacks.
The insults have come from a "cross section" of the community and are believed to be linked to current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to air-base officials. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has held talks with Cambridgeshire police over the problem, described as "despicable" by the city's mayor Marion Todd.
RAF officers have been urged to identify the culprits and police have pledged to target problem pubs or streets where personnel have been harassed by yobs. A source close to Gordon Brown said: "All our armed forces should be able to wear their uniforms with pride and with the respect of their communities. If they face abuse or even violence then the law must clamp down on that severely and urgently. We can't allow this minority of idiots to undermine the support our whole country has for our armed forces."
Squadron Leader Tony Walsh, spokesman for RAF Wittering - a former Battle of Britain air base - said a number of personnel living in the city and its outskirts had suffered abuse in uniform. He said the banning decision was made by station commander Group Captain Rowena Atherton after advice from RAF police. There was a national ban on wearing uniforms in public during the Northern Ireland "troubles" and constant attacks on the miltary by the IRA, but nowadays the decision is taken locally, and increasingly in favour of being seen in uniform.
Currently, 150 men from RAF Wittering are in Afghanistan, protecting Kandahar airfield against Taliban attacks. The air base is ten miles north of Peterborough, which has a population of around 170,000. The largest non-white ethnic group is the Pakistani community of about 10,000 and in recent years it has received an unprecedented number of Eastern European migrants. However sources close to the police and RAF said the biggest offenders had been thugs from the local white community.
Mayor Todd, who has a relative currently serving with the Army in Afghanistan, said: "I honestly think it's despicable. A small minority shouldn't be able to dictate to us, particularly at the moment when we are so proud of what they are doing. It's a sad day for the city and for the country when the RAF can't wear their uniforms."
Defence Secretary Des Browne ordered an urgent inquiry, saying: "We must defend our forces' right to wear their unforms in public. It's a great shame that some individuals in this community don't respect our forces - who are daily doing a great deal for this nation. I hope that personnel at RAF Wittering will soon be able to wear their uniforms freely about town."
News of the controversial ban came on the day 184 British servicemen and women received for bravery in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also coincided with government ministers receiving results of a review - ordered by Gordon Brown last year - aimed at boosting the reputation of the armed forces. The Prime Minister believes it would improve support if uniforms were seen more regularly in public and the review is expected to recommend scrapping curbs on troops wearing uniform off duty.
Lord Guthrie, a former Chief of the Defence Staff, said of the uniform ban: "This is a shocking, dispiriting state of affairs. Our troops are only doing their job, and it is a fantastic job defending the country, and this kind of despicable behaviour from mindless people will make them feel unappreciated."
Dr Liam Fox, the Tory defence spokesman, said: "I think that the majority of our public would be appalled to hear that there are no-go areas for our armed forces in their own country."
Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, a former Army colonel, said: "The yobs who shout this abuse are a bunch of clowns and cowards. Do they not realise our servicemen put their lives on the line on a daily basis for them?"
Seriously, I want to kick somebody now. And it's not even my damn country.
If you are in Britain and you come across a serviceperson, please tell them "thank you".
(Ditto for you Americans, but I shouldn't have to say that...)