Belfast Telegraph

Army must do more to support soldiers in distress, say families ‘horrified’ by Ballykinler inquest evidence

Linda Ketcher, mother of Lance Corporal James Ross
Linda Ketcher, mother of Lance Corporal James Ross
Carol Mitchell, mother of Rifleman Darren Mitchell
Lance Corporal James Ross
Rifleman Darren Mitchell
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

A coroner has pledged to write to the head of the Army to highlight his concerns after two soldiers were found hanged at a base here within three months of each other.

Joe McCrisken outlined his plans following an inquest into the deaths of Lance Corporal James Ross (30), from Leeds, and 20-year-old Rifleman Darren Mitchell, from London.

Mr McCrisken said he was not satisfied to the required standard that L/Cpl Ross, who was found dead in his room at Ballykinler, Co Down, on December 8, 2012, intended to take his own life.

Delivering his findings at Laganside Courts yesterday, he said: "I consider James Ross's death to be an accident."

Seconds after the ruling one of L/Cpl Ross's sisters left the courtroom in tears and there was a brief recess to allow his family to digest the findings.

The inquest also examined the death of Rifleman Mitchell, who was discovered hanged in his room at the base on February 10, 2013.

Mr McCrisken said he was satisfied on the balance of probability that Rifleman Mitchell did intend to take his own life, referring to what the Army psychiatrist described as "fatalistic" WhatsApp messages between him and his girlfriend in the hours before his death.

He read out a number of messages - "I'm done with the hurt, I've found my way out" and "Don't worry, I'll be out of your hair soon" - as well as a final Facebook post that said: "Tonight's it then."

The coroner also pointed to the discovery of a hosepipe in his car that smelt of fumes and he said it led him to believe "it is possible that Darren had tried to take his own life before".

Both soldiers were serving with Second Battalion the Rifles and had been on active service in Afghanistan previously.

The inquest heard of an additional eight incidents of self-harm involving other soldiers from the same unit recorded over the six-month period within which the men died.

It was also told of issues around record-keeping by the Army, as well as complaints that Ballykinler had been an "isolated" base, with some soldiers nicknaming it 'Bally-kill-yourself'.

Mr McCrisken told the families yesterday, however, that there was no evidence the Army had failed the men, nor did he find proof of bullying or a culture that dissuaded soldiers from coming forward about mental health issues.

The coroner, who visited Ballykinler during the inquest, also said: "Soldiers may have nicknamed the base Bally-kill-Yourself but I am not satisfied that the location of this base caused or contributed to either the death of James or Darren".

Mr McCrisken pointed out that there was also "work to be done" to encourage soldiers to come forward to seek help with mental health issues, and referred to "poor record keeping" by the Army.

He added: "The Army needs to take steps to give soldiers confidence to come forward about mental health problems without fearing an impact on their careers."

Mr McCrisken noted that his findings came in the same week as a new report by the House of Commons Defence Committee on mental health care for serving members of the armed forces and veterans.

He said he plans to consider the report and will "write to the head of the Army making him aware of the deaths of Lance Corporal Ross and Rifleman Mitchell and the circumstances of those deaths and I'll include a copy of my findings".

Following yesterday's hearing Emma Norton, a solicitor for the Ross and Mitchell families, said they were "horrified" by what they had learned during the three-week inquest, which was held at Ballymena courthouse.

Speaking on behalf of the two families, Ms Norton added: "In addition to our sons' deaths there were eight other episodes of serious self-harm in this unit, soldiers who had served on active operations overseas and who were not being flagged up as at risk and or needing help.

"We heard evidence of soldiers cutting themselves, taking overdoses and burning themselves.

"The suicide register which every regiment is supposed to have, and which is supposed to record the details of any vulnerable soldier, was apparently deleted and could not be produced and the families do not accept the bizarre explanation that this register and all of the care plans were accidentally deleted."

Ms Norton also referred to "the Army's own internal inquiry which the families were assured would mean that lessons were learned, its recommendations were lost and no explanation has been given for that".

She said the families were "very disappointed" that "this verdict does not appear to reflect all of this evidence today", but added they were "very pleased" that the coroner is going to write to the head of the Army to say it "could and should do more to support soldiers who are suffering mental distress".

In a further statement, Carol Mitchell, mother of Rifleman Mitchell, claimed he was failed by the Army.

"Darren always wanted to join the Army and he was a brilliant soldier," she said.

"Everybody loved him. As one of his colleagues said at the inquest: 'If we had an army of Darrens we would be undefeatable'.

"But the Army failed him. Instead of Darren receiving the help he needed after returning from a difficult tour in Afghanistan, he was left isolated, exhausted and with nowhere to turn, even after his behaviour had noticeably changed."

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