Parents condemn Army over suicides

IoS Investigation: 'Unnatural deaths' of young recruits are not confined to those at Deepcut barracks. By Steve Bloomfield and Sophie Goodchild
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The Independent Online

They turned out to be Paul Cochrane's last words. He told his father Billy: "I'll be all right. Tell mum it's OK." Then came the crack of a single gunshot. The 18-year-old, a soldier with the Royal Irish Regiment, had placed a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He died instantly.

Only two days earlier, the teenage recruit had been refused home leave to recover from an ear infection that doctors feared would permanently damage his hearing. In a final letter to his family, Paul wrote: "Bad men have made me do this."

His father believes Paul was driven to his death after being bullied by senior officers - yet another victim of the culture of abuse that threatens Britain's barracks.

A report, published with little or no fanfare by the Ministry of Defence last month, shows teenage soldiers - those aged between 16 and 19 - are one and half times as likely to commit suicide as teenagers of the same age in the general population. There were 27 teenage suicides by soldiers in the 10 years to 2001.

This has become a burning issue in the light of a number of deaths at Deepcut barracks - where families insist that MoD-recorded suicides are more likely to be the result of foul play - and at Catterick, one of Europe's largest military bases in North Yorkshire, where seven soldiers have been found hanging and six others have died from gunshot wounds since 1995.

The deaths at Catterick have prompted calls for a public inquiry, and follow an extensive police inquiry into four suspicious deaths at Deepcut.

"Why young Army males experience more suicide deaths than the equivalent UK civilian population merits further investigation," concludes the Defence Analytical Services Agency (Dasa), a department within the MoD. However, an Army spokes-woman said there were no plans to carry out such an investigation.

The Dasa research is significant because it is in stark contrast to the official MoD line that suicide rates within the Army are "statistically significantly lower than the rate for the national population". According to the Dasa report that is only true for older soldiers, while teenagers - who are most vulnerable to bullying during the intense training regimes at the start of their careers - are more prone to suicide.

Last week, the Army confirmed that another young soldier had committed suicide at Catterick. L/Cpl Derek McGregor was found hanged there in July, bringing the tally to 13 since 1995.

Surrey police, who are investigating the deaths of four soldiers at Deepcut, have confirmed that officers from their constabulary have met officers from North Yorkshire to discuss military deaths.

An Amnesty International report into deaths at barracks, published in June, called for an inquiry into the 1,748 "non-natural" deaths that have occurred since 1990. Of these, 200 have been described as "self-inflicted", and 200 were the result of incidents with firearms.

More than 170 MPs have now signed an early day motion condemning the "culture of secrecy" surrounding the deaths, detailed by Amnesty, and have called for an independent public inquiry.

Mr Cochrane describes the investigation into his son's death as a "scam". "It's not an inquiry - it's a set-up," said Mr Cochrane, a taxi-driver from Belfast. "I was told what the outcome of the inquiry was before the Board of Inquiries had even been set up ... The Army has no credibility ... Nobody believes a word they say.

"A senior welfare officer wrote a letter to his superiors saying somebody was going to kill themselves weeks before it happened. He said the men were depressed - and sure enough, Paul killed himself two weeks later."

The Army said that allegations of bullying are taken very seriously, and that all possible steps are taken to deal with problems personnel may have. "There are all sorts of welfare provisions already in place," an Army spokeswoman said. "They are very well supported."

* Figures from the MoD show that since 1995 there have been 24 incidents at Deepcut of soldiers taking drug overdoses. A further 24 soldiers at the barracks have tested positive for illegal drugs during random tests carried out since 1999.

Michael Hancock, Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, said that the picture emerging of Deepcut was of a place with "a lot of problems". "There have been a lot of drug-related problems and incidents of drug abuse which are above the norm," he said.

Why did they die?

David McKenna, 19. Died September 1995

Shot himself with a rifle in a toilet at the Dreghorn Barracks, Edinburgh. The solicitor representing McKenna's family at the inquest argued that bullying and intimidation had led to his death. However, the inquiry found insufficient evidence to back up the claims.

Gary Riches, 24. Died October 1995

The family were given four different versions of events, including a misfire from cleaning his rifle and suicide in a drunken rage. An inquest heard how the death could have been the result of horseplay, but the coroner delivered an open verdict, citing too many inconsistencies in the evidence.

William Beckley-Lines, 22. Died August 1998

Collapsed and died following a two-mile training run. The coroner attributed his death to Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, but his mother alleges that he had been bullied and victimised. A second post-mortem, paid for by the family, disclosed bruises in the genital area.

Andrew Dobson, 23. Died November 2002

Was found unconscious and choking in his room, having been strangled. Charges brought against a fellow private were dropped in February. Hampshire police say that the case is still active while they await the results of forensic science tests.

Steve Bloomfield