Inquest begins into deaths of two soldiers at Army barracks

By agency reporter
May 8, 2018

An inquest examining whether systemic failings at an Army barracks contributed to the deaths of two young Afghanistan veterans will begin in Belfast on Tuesday 8 May 2018.

Lance Corporal James Ross, 30, from Leeds, and Rifleman Darren Mitchell, 20, from London, died within three months of each other at Ballykinler barracks, Co Down, in 2012 and 2013. Both men were found hanged.

Following their deaths, the Army conducted its own internal inquiry. The Service Inquiry took almost two years to report and found a number of serious failings, including inadequate measures for dealing with soldiers who were vulnerable and in need of help at a base where self-harm was a serious concern.

The inquest will begin at 10am at Laganside Courts in Belfast. It is scheduled to last for three weeks, with the Coroner expected to deliver his verdict on 29 May 2018. 

It will consider whether there were serious systemic failings in the support of troops at the barracks and, if so, whether they contributed to James’s and Darren’s deaths.

The inquest will examine:

  • The loss of the 'suicide vulnerability and risk management register', which stored the details of all potentially vulnerable soldiers on the unit. The register was apparently lost in 2013, having reportedly been saved onto the Adjutant’s laptop instead of in a secure central location.
  • The training of Army nursing staff. Nurses had not had specific Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) training and may have missed signs of the condition.
  • Underpayment of wages. One of the soldiers had been underpaid by the Army for many months at a time.
  • Gaps in the Army’s medical record keeping. The families wish to know if their sons may have been prescribed anti-malarial medication which has been linked to psychotic episodes, self-harm and suicide.

The families are also concerned the unit did not provide a conducive environment for soldiers who might be struggling on their return from operations overseas.

Lance Corporal Ross’s mother Linda Ketcher and Rifleman Mitchell’s mother Carol Mitchell, represented by human rights organisation Liberty, successfully argued for a wide-ranging Article 2 inquest, in a bid to finally bring full details about their sons’ deaths into the light – and prevent other young soldiers’ suffering in the same way.

This inquest begins as the inquest into the death of Private Sean Benton draws to a close. Sean, 20, died at Deepcut barracks in 1995 – the first of four soldiers to die of gunshot wounds between 1995 and 2002.

That inquest examined very serious alleged failures to provide welfare and mental health support to struggling soldiers. The Ministry of Defence has stated the welfare systems in place today are significantly improved. The Ross and Mitchell families are concerned that this confidence may be misplaced.

Carol Mitchell, mother of Rifleman Darren Mitchell, said: “The Army’s new recruitment slogan is, ‘This is Belonging’. In the month before he died, Darren said he felt broken and told me that he didn’t know where he belonged any more. He was lost and lonely and obviously felt that he had nowhere to turn.”

Linda Ketcher, mother of Lance Corporal James Ross, said: “When your children join the Army, you understand you might lose them in a war zone – but you don’t expect to lose them when they should be safe at their barracks. Our sons risked their lives for their country, but we fear they were seriously let down in return.

“This inquest can’t bring James back, but we hope that by dragging these failings into the light we will force the Army to learn lessons and put things right, so other families aren’t made to suffer the way we have.”

Emma Norton, Head of Legal Casework at Liberty and solicitor for the families, said: “James and Darren deserved better. They had deployed to Afghanistan, endured difficult tours and put their lives on the line. Their families have serious concerns that their sons were not properly looked after on their return.

“In recent months, the Army has been at pains to promote itself as inclusive and caring – and to insist that the terrible experiences of young soldiers at places like Deepcut have been consigned to history. Sadly, James and Darren’s treatment indicates that troops may still not be getting the support they need.”

Lance Corporal James Ross was found hanged at Ballykinler barracks on 8 December 2012. Rifleman Darren Mitchell was found hanged on 10 February 2013.

Both men served in the 2nd Battalion the Rifles and had been deployed to Afghanistan. James Ross  had completed two tours – Operation Herrick 10 and Herrick 15. Darren Mitchell had completed one tour – Herrick 15.

In the months after their deaths, there were eight other incidents of self-harm on the same unit.

The Army’s internal investigation and subsequent pre-inquest hearings have revealed that:

  • The base’s 'suicide vulnerability and risk management register' had gone missing in early 2013. The Adjutant apparently saved the register onto the desktop of his laptop instead of the unit’s central computer system and lost it. The unit since reconstructed the record “from memory” and insists neither James Ross nor Darren Mitchell – nor the eight soldiers who harmed themselves in the months after their deaths – were on it prior to their deaths or self-harming.
  • Darren Mitchell had been displaying signs of what his family fear may have been PTSD – but the Army nurse who assessed him had not had PTSD training. Darren told his family that he had been informed he might have ‘sub-PTSD’ or depression. It is not clear what was done by the Army in light of this.
  • Darren Mitchell was not being paid correctly at the time of his death. Darren appears to have been under significant financial pressure. A large amount of money owed to him by the Army was paid into his account after his death.

* Liberty  https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/

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