Soldier suicides: Two deaths and eight self-harm incidents at Ballykinler Army barracks probed
There are fears for the welfare of isolated soldiers in a Northern Ireland Army barracks after two suspected suicides.
Two veterans of Afghanistan, Lance-Corporal James Ross (30) and Rifleman Darren Mitchell (20) died at Ballykinler, Co Down.
Eight incidents of self-harm were recorded at the base over a seven-month period, where many of the 565 troops are housed in single rooms.
Reports of heavy drinking and restricted movements due to dissident republican threats, have exacerbated feelings of loneliness.
A sister of one soldier who died the day before he was to report to Ballykinler in 2011 has branded the base "ridiculously isolated".
Abigail Smith's brother, Afghanistan veteran Allan Arnold (20) was found hanged in his native Cirencester, Gloucestershire two years ago – the day before he was due back at Ballykinler.
Ms Smith (24), called the base "a ridiculously isolated barracks. The signal is rubbish for mobile phones, so you can't talk to family much. What concerns me is the lack of care the lads receive."
Captain Doug Beattie, a former Regimental Sergeant Major in the Royal Irish Regiment said: "People who are from England and their families, because of the current situation in Northern Ireland, can feel isolated and scared to go out in to society. You look at the rest of the UK which has the armed forces covenant and you look at Northern Ireland, we don't have it because one side of the community refuses to allow it.
"These people see that and realise that there is a political and security issue. People do not want to come and serve in the military in Northern Ireland because of that. The welfare of soldiers and soldiers' families really is a duty of the unit. It's part of the moral component to soldiering.
"I'm in no doubt whatsoever that lots of things are being done to improve the situation."
The first suspected suicide was last December when L/Cpl James Ross (30), from Leeds was found dead in his room.
Soldiers said he had attended a dinner in the Corporals' Mess the night before, where it was claimed there was heavy drinking and some soldiers took alcohol back to their rooms.
The 30-year-old was last seen returning to his room in tears in the early hours of the morning.
His girlfriend Sharon Lemon from Belfast told the Sunday Times: "James was the most kind, caring, funny and loving partner any girl would dream of falling in love with. He took interest in everyone he met. I love him dearly and not a day goes by that he is not in my thoughts.
"In my worst nightmare I would never have imagined this to have happened. It is a living hell."
Two months after Ross' death, Rifleman Darren Mitchell (20), from Uxbridge, London, was found hanged at the base. He was a veteran of Afghanistan.
An MoD spokesman said: "A Service Inquiry is under way into two cases of sudden death at Ballykinler Barracks in Northern Ireland. It would be inappropriate to comment while this is ongoing but we stress that the mental health of our personnel and veterans is a top priority which is why the Government has committed £7.4m to ensure there is extensive mental health support in place for everyone who needs it." He added: Every suicide is a tragedy and our thoughts remain with the families of all those who have sadly taken their own lives. Suicide amongst the Armed Forces remains extremely rare."