A coroner launched a scathing attack on the Ministry of Defence's failure to care for its soldiers yesterday, just days after the Government attempted to gag its critics.
Andrew Walker was speaking at the inquest of Lance Corporal Sean Tansey, who was killed in Afghanistan when he was crushed beneath a Spartan armoured vehicle that he was trying to repair.
In a stinging verdict, Mr Walker said the lack of training and equipment given to the soldiers by the regiment amounted to neglect and, in the words of one witness, a gross failure.
Just 10 days ago, the Defence Secretary Des Browne was accused of trying to gag coroners after bringing a High Court test case to prevent them making negative comments, insisting it would expose the MoD to civil actions. But Mr Walker, who has been a fearless critic of the MoD, where he deemed failures had led to deaths in service, was unbowed.
The inquest heard how L/Cpl Tansey, 26, a "charming and hugely popular" man, was serving with the Household Cavalry in Sangin during the ferocious fighting which exploded in Helmand in the summer of 2006. The harsh, hot and dusty environment of the desert takes its toll on the ageing British Army vehicles and they require constant repair and maintenance.
L/Cpl Edward Sampson, who was helping Cpl Tansey as they worked on the Spartan's broken torsion bar, told the court: "There was a big clunk. The vehicle pitched forwards and Sean's head was underneath it."
Struggling to save their comrade, the soldiers did not have an adequate jack to lift the vehicle off his body and had to wait for a passing forklift to help them out.
Sergeant Major Lee Hodges of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers told the coroner that cushioning planks, known as "skidding", employed to stop falling vehicles crushing soldiers, would have saved the young man's life.
But Cpl Sampson said the team had no such planks, only "some bits of shitty old pallet" and wood they found in a nearby orchard. When the coroner asked if soldiers could refuse to do repair work on health and safety grounds, Cpl Sampson said: "That's not the way the Army works. If you are told to do something you do it."
Mr Walker, the assistant deputy Oxfordshire coroner, commented: "This was a matter for the MoD. It shouldn't be for soldiers to go foraging in a hostile environment to find chocks and skidding. The soldiers are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they repair a vehicle and it results in tragedy, they face criticism for that but they have no alternative but to make repairs. These are bits of wood – they are not expensive.
"I cannot begin to imagine the suffering of Lance Corporal Tansey's family. It seems to me that, from the beginning, they understood this was a tragedy that should not have happened.
"This court has heard evidence of the failure to provide basic equipment for the maintenance of vehicles, which has been described by one witness as amounting to a gross or serious failure. It is quite unfair that the soldiers should be criticised when their training was not adequate and equipment was not sufficient. For this reason, Lance Corporal Tansey lost his life ... His death was contributed to by neglect."
Fighting back tears Cpl Tansey's grandfather John Atherton, 70, spoke after the verdict to say: "The constant flow of bodies coming back is so tragic."
A MoD spokesman said: "Alongside the findings of the Royal Military Police and MoD's own investigations, we note the Coroner's comments and will ensure lessons are learnt from this tragic incident."Reuse content