On 8 October, 2011, Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement, a soldier in the Royal Military Police (RMP), was with friends and family celebrating her 30th birthday in a Chinese restaurant close to her family home in Bournemouth.
Anne-Marie, who was stationed an hour away at the Bulford Army camp in Wiltshire, appeared happy and care-free, chatting away to the assembled crowd and enjoying her food and wine. As she shouted "love you" to her sister and left the party, Anne-Marie seemed in high spirits. The next day, sometime in the early evening, she tied her favourite pink wool scarf to a fire escape outside her barracks and hanged herself. The word 'Sorry' was written in lipstick on the mirror inside her room.
Anne-Marie had dreamed of joining the Army since she was a teenager. Her father served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), and she had three nephews that served in an infantry regiment. So what went wrong in the Army for a woman who was proud to wear her uniform?
In the early days, life in the Army was tough for Anne-Marie. Having previously been rejected from the forces due to problems with fitness, she was determined to do well, says Anne-Marie's older sister Sharon Hardy, when I visit her in her home in Bournemouth. "She dreamt of being promoted to Officer rank one day. Her duties covered all aspects of policing crime on the barracks, but what she loved was knowing she was helping victims of crime."
In the summer of 2009, Anne-Marie was transferred from her first post in Northern Ireland to Sennelager, Germany. "She really wanted to go there," says Sharon.
At first, Anne-Marie loved her work in the new posting, but it was soon to change. Following a night out in November 2009, Anne-Marie reported being raped by two soldiers. After reporting the incident, she was subject to horrendous bullying by colleagues, and even her Sergeant, who posted messages about problems with her work on Facebook.
During phone calls home, Anne-Marie told her sisters that the girls on the block were taunting her, banging on her door and making her life miserable. The bullies apparently included the girlfriend of one of the men Anne-Marie had accused of rape. During the inquest she was said to have called her a "slag" and to have vowed to "make her life hell".
"Anne-Marie was badly let down by her commanding officers and many of her colleagues," says Kirsten Heaven, one of the lawyers representing the family. "The distress at being disbelieved when reporting rape was then made far worse by the bullying that was allowed to continue up until her death."
At the first inquest into her death in March 2012, the Deputy Assistant Coroner, Ian Singleton, said that her suicide was "totally unexpected". But Anne-Marie's sister, Sharon Hardy, was determined to expose the truth, and put to witnesses from the RMP that Anne-Marie was working long hours and being bullied online.
After the second inquest, when the new Coroner, Nicholas Rheinberg, delivered his verdict of suicide, he referred to descriptions of conditions in the Army as "like a hothouse". Rheinberg ruled that bullying by colleagues and the mental scars of an alleged rape by other soldiers were factors in Anne-Marie's suicide. Anne-Marie was also, said Rheinberg, tormented by "work-related despair" and the break-up of a romance. He recommended to the Ministry of Defence that it review its Suicide Vulnerability Risk Assessment procedures and ensure that medical personnel were given regular refresher training.
A letter dated 11 August, 2011 was found in Anne-Marie's room after she died, setting out various complaints about the way she had been treated. The Army deny ever receiving this letter.
"I'd gone to bed when the phone started ringing in the middle of the night," says Sharon. "My son was on tour in Afghanistan, so I feared the worst. But I was told that it was Anne-Marie that had died. I just didn't want to believe it, so I started calling Anne-Marie on her phone and her phone just kept ringing and ringing."
Anne-Marie had a history of childhood sexual abuse, and had been raped during her teenage years. She was 25 when she joined the Army, which meant she was older than her colleagues, and struggled with her fitness. "Already, she stood out from the others and was vulnerable and desperate to be liked," says Kirsten Heaven. "Some people took advantage of that vulnerability." Anne-Marie, who struggled with her weight, was called 'Anne-Marie Elephant' by the bullies.
I ask Sharon how she first heard about the rape allegation. "I got a phone call from one of her friends who said, 'I've got something to tell you, Anne-Marie can't phone you and tell you herself, but she's been raped'. It wasn't long before Anne-Marie called me and she was just really, really emotional, upset. A couple of weeks later she came home and was totally drained."
Anne-Marie paid a high price for making a formal complaint against other soldiers. Bullying and gossip dogged Anne-Marie's life in the Army following the rape allegation, says Kirsten Heaven. "Anne-Marie's life in the RMP was over the minute she made that allegation." To date, no one has been disciplined for bullying Anne-Marie.
According to Emma Norton of Liberty, "what was clear from the inquest is that many people within and at all levels of the chain of command in the UK knew about the rape allegation, despite many not being formally told by the chain of command. It had spread on the RMP rumour mill."
"There were accusations that Anne-Marie was a 'bitch' and a 'liar' who had 'cried rape' and broken rank," says Sharon. "Her life became a total misery from the moment she reported those men."
After the alleged rape in Germany, Anne-Marie became depressed and self-harmed. She was placed on the Suicide Vulnerability Risk Management (SVRM), and requested an immediate transfer out of Sennelager.
Following an internal review, it was decided, in January 2010, that no charges would be brought against the two men she had accused.
The day after Anne-Marie was told that the case against the alleged rapists had been dropped, she went out drinking and was reported as being seen "fornicating" with a man in public. The next morning, Anne-Marie was driven an hour away to Hereford, for a formal disciplinary meeting, and marched into the office of Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Ian Warren. Warren later admitted he was aware that Anne-Marie was on the SVRM register and had self-harmed.
During this disciplinary, detailed minutes were taken which were then produced at the second inquest. These notes recorded that Warren told Anne-Marie that she would have to deal with the fact that she would bump into the two accused at future postings. Anne-Marie admitted she had "reached breaking point". The note stated that Anne-Marie said she accepted responsibility for what happened to her. Under questioning in court, Warren denied having asked Anne-Marie whether she accepted responsibility for the rape and suggested this comment related to the incident for which she was being disciplined. Warren did tell Anne-Marie that Bulford barracks, where she had applied to be transferred to, were not "overly keen" to take her. He also pointed out that Anne-Marie could be let go if she wanted to leave.
The Coroner said that although Anne-Marie's actions had "the potential for a serious disciplinary charge", Colonel Warren "handled the matter in a compassionate, non-disciplinary manner".
A few weeks later, the transfer to Bulford barracks in the UK came through. Anne-Marie left Germany behind, but information about her vulnerability to suicide was not passed on. A care assessment plan had purportedly been created in Germany (though no witness can recall what was actually in it) and this document was apparently posted to the new unit, which never received it. These failures in transit of information were described by the coroner in the second inquest as "unforgivably bad".
Anne-Marie appeared to be happier in her new posting, but that was soon to change. She heard that one of the main bullies, Charlene Pritchard, was being transferred to Bulford later in the year. She arrived in the summer with a woman she had befriended in Germany, Aislen Taylor, who also seemed to dislike Anne-Marie. A witness described Anne-Marie as visibly shaken and upset on seeing one of the women who had bullied her in Germany.
At the end of September 2011, Anne-Marie was signed off sick for five days with stress and depression, and again asked to be transferred. When the nurse asked her if she had thought about harming herself, Anne-Marie apparently would not answer and just looked at her hands.
Her senior officer agreed to sign her up for an assessment day at the veterinary corps, but there was deeply unsatisfactory and contradictory evidence heard at the inquest as to whether this had happened. Anne-Marie's application to transfer has never been found. A computer entry in relation to her application was allegedly deleted after she died, and a criminal investigation into the matter is apparently ongoing. The witness concerned refused to answer questions about this at the second inquest.
In the summer of 2012, the RMP conducted its own review of its own original rape investigation. It concluded that it was thorough and that there were no further grounds for investigation.
Following pressure from human rights organisation, Liberty, and Anne-Marie's family, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) agreed to appoint the Royal Airforce Police to carry out a review of the RMP criminal investigation and RMP review alongside Bedfordshire civilian police force, with the lawyers arguing that anything less than independent police involvement would be a violation of the Human Rights Act. This is the first time that military and civilian police have collaborated in this way.
On the eve of the scheduled verdict in the second inquest, in February 2014, the MOD discovered 1,464 documents that they said were possibly relevant to the inquest, but, at the same time, reassured Nicholas Rheinberg, the coroner, that there would be nothing of significance in the pile. The MOD offered up 29 documents of marginal relevance to the coroner; however, the legal representatives closely scrutinised the documents and found many more that were likely to be of relevance, all of which were accepted by the coroner and admitted into evidence.
Sexual violence is clearly a significant problem in the military. As a result of publicity about Anne-Marie's case, Liberty has been contacted by other women who claim to have experienced sexual violence while serving in the military.
In 2012, Channel 4 News was shown a document outlining a series of failings on sexual harassment, bullying, and trust in the military complaints system. In a letter from Major General John Lorimer, disclosed to the Adjutant General Lieutenant General Gerry Berragan Lorimer, every one of the 400 female officers spoken to on the subject of sexual harassment claimed to have suffered unwanted sexual attention.
The same year, the MOD admitted that there were 20 soldiers that were on the sex offenders' register, but still allowed to serve in the Army. The 2006 Armed Forces Act allows Military Police officers to investigate allegations of sexual assault by soldiers in barracks without referring the cases to the civilian police.
Commanding officers are able to deal internally with more than 50 categories of what is viewed by the military as less serious sexual offences, such as some sexual assaults, indecent exposure and voyeurism. And, as in Anne-Marie's case, internal investigators do not always have training in sexual offences.
Kate Cook is a senior law lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and the founder of Campaign to End Rape. For her, the Ellement case is a particular example of a male-dominated profession treating women shabbily. "It is not alone in this, but it is particularly stark when the organisation citizens depend upon for peace cannot provide these basic markers of humanity to women within its ranks."
It is clear that Anne-Marie's problems had built up to an unbearable degree by the time she died. She had just discovered that a former boyfriend had begun seeing someone else. Anne-Marie was working long hours, often being called in on rest days even after an overnight shift. But being accused of "crying rape", and being made to feel responsible by colleagues and superiors, clearly had a major impact.
Sharon Hardy wants to see better protection for all complainants and victims of sexual assault in the military. "If I got assaulted, the last thing I would want to do is go and talk to some 50-year-old guy sat at his last posting in a welfare office, with no training in sexual assault."
As I say goodbye to Sharon, she tells me about her younger sister's bravery, and her pride about being in the Army. "Anne-Marie was not scared of dying. She knew it could happen on active duty and she was as brave as any soldier could be. But why did she have to die this way?"
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