Soldier took own life after break-down of marriage
Tuesday 26 October 2010
A soldier killed himself just weeks into a tour of Iraq after his marriage to a fellow serving officer broke down following a string of difficulties, an inquest heard today.
Cpl Lee Churcher shot himself in the head in his bedroom at a contingency operating base in Basra on December 11 2008.
The 32-year-old father-of-two was serving with Headquarters 20th Armoured Brigade and had been in the armed forces for 14 years.
Today an inquest at Coventry Coroner's Court heard Cpl Churcher, from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, was serving on the same base and same tour as his soon-to-be ex-wife Michelle Churcher.
The court heard the couple, who had two young children, had suffered marital problems for much of their eight-year marriage and were going through a divorce in late 2008.
Cpl Churcher had had a string of affairs and a problem with alcohol, as well as previously taking anti-depressants, the inquest heard.
And just days before he took his own life, he overheard someone outside his sleeping quarters claiming he was going to be sleeping with his estranged wife throughout the tour.
Mrs Churcher, a warrant officer second class, said her husband - described by his father as a "Jekyll and Hyde" character - would often drink too much, prompting violent behaviour.
He had previously been prescribed anti-depressants by a military psychiatrist in a bid to deal with "deep-rooted issues from his childhood", the inquest heard.
In late 2008 the couple were both deployed to Iraq to the same base, despite their problems, the inquest heard.
WO2 Churcher told the inquest she did not think her husband, who had previously been demoted from sergeant to corporal for having an affair with a subordinate's wife, should have been in Iraq.
She said: "When he was happy he was the nicest, caring, loving man, he was everybody's best friend.
"He would give you the clothes off his back.
"But when he was down, when he was in these dark places, he was the nastiest, most vindictive, manipulative man you could find, and he didn't care who he hurt at that point.
"And there was never really a happy medium, it was one or it was the other.
"I look at Lee and I see him as a complete person with two facets, and he was in the middle of a divorce with a fellow warrant officer going to the same theatre.
"I don't believe that it was the right place to send somebody in his frame of mind."
Recording a verdict of suicide, assistant deputy coroner for Coventry and Warwickshire Jason Pegg said: "In the circumstances the fact that Lee was deployed to Iraq at all has been questioned by Michelle who not only is his wife, knows Lee extremely well, but is herself a serving soldier and warrant officer.
"There may be some merit in what Michelle says, having regard to Lee's past history and particularly having regard to the fact that they had two young children yet found themselves both deployed into an operational theatre.
"I do note that it is something the authorities, the chain of command, should perhaps consider when deploying married couples, especially at times when they are going through a traumatic period such as a divorce when deploying them to theatre."
The inquest heard just days before his death, Cpl Churcher confronted his wife after apparently hearing another soldier claim he was going to be sleeping with her on tour.
WO2 Churcher told the inquest the couple were separated and divorcing after she had endured several affairs and violent behaviour from Cpl Churcher.
She said: "He said he had been laid in his corimec and said he heard somebody saying I was going to be sleeping with them for the rest of the tour.
"He said if I was going to be doing anything he didn't want his nose rubbed in it.
"I dismissed it, I did say to him that it actually had nothing to do with him, we were separated, we were at decree nisi by that point and it didn't matter what I did, it had nothing to do with him, then I left.
"He was fuming, his favourite line was, 'if I catch you with anybody there will be blood', and that was a bit of a byline for him.
"I would never have done it in front of him if I was because he would have done it, he would have swung for that individual."
The inquest heard Cpl Churcher had a history of drinking too much, and WO2 Churcher said he did not know when to stop, often becoming violent when he was drunk.
She described occasions when he chased her cat round the living room with a carving knife, and another when he tried to throw her dining table through a window.
"He was never physically violent with me, he would throw things regularly, like the garden furniture over the back gate, he tried to put my dining room table through the dining room window.
"Once he had slept he wouldn't remember, that was the part that frightened me, the following day he just couldn't remember."
She said the couple were posted to Germany together in September 2007, hoping to save their marriage, but that proved to be the end of it, when she found out her husband had had another fling while on exercise.
She said she reported problems to her chain of command because she "had had enough".
Struggling through tears, she told the court: "To be told at 9.30am that he is going to come and petrol bomb my house, and I'm too frightened to go for a shower and leave my children, I couldn't do it any more."
WO2 Churcher told the inquest her husband once threatened to drive his car off a cliff, and another time was found by a neighbour in their house planning to hang himself from a bannister.
But she said Cpl Churcher had told her he would never divorce her and she would never divorce him.
"He wanted the marriage, he wanted us to be together, he wanted me more than he wanted the family.
"I since found out there were a minimum of eight affairs and they started when my daughter was four months and I was pregnant with my son.
"He had all the right words but his actions were different."
She said she saw Cpl Churcher on December 10 when they had a meeting to arrange to record a message for their children for the Alan Titchmarsh Show Christmas Special.
The message was to be recorded on December 12, but by that time Cpl Churcher had died.
"He went out there and he knew he wasn't coming home," she said, "I stand by that. I think he went there with no intention of coming home."
The inquest heard Cpl Churcher was found in his "corimec" - army accommodation used in war zones - with his rifle in his hand. He had shot himself in the head.
In a note left for his wife, he said: "Shell, I can't do it any more.
"I haven't got the energy for this battle with myself to get over what I have done and what I have destroyed.
"Tell the children I love them and I will look down on them always.
"I am sorry for the heartache and the hurt I have put you through for far too long. You did not deserve any of this.
"I hope you find someone that can be a better husband and father than I ever was. You were my only real love and without you I am an empty soul."
Corporal Nathan Johnson, a friend of Cpl Churcher, said he had not noticed anything unusual about his friend when he saw him at dinner on the night of December 11 and was "gutted" to hear of his death.
He said Cpl Churcher had been upset about hearing someone say his ex-wife was sleeping with them.
"He said he had heard a couple of lads outside his corimec saying something about, 'I'll be all right on this tour, Michelle Churcher is out here'.
"He said he wasn't happy about it and he said he was going to speak to Michelle about it.
"Then when he spoke to Michelle about it he came back. He said she said it was a load of rubbish and I said it probably was.
"That got to him, that did. He kept talking about it, he would bring it up. He would say, 'I want to find out who it is'."
He said Cpl Churcher regretted the affairs, telling the inquest: "I believe he loved Michelle, I really do."
Cpl Churcher's father Keith told the hearing he and his wife had no idea of their son's excessive drinking or marital problems.
"They were just a beautiful couple from day one," he said.
"He was just an adoring father, this is the hardest thing, you can't understand, his love for the children.
"It's just like a Jekyll and Hyde, we never knew that side."
The inquest heard on the day of his death, Cpl Churcher had spoken to a friend via MSN Messenger, mentioning having overheard someone claiming he would be sleeping with his wife.
He also posted on his Facebook status: "Lee loves hearing stories about his ex whilst trying to sleep. The kids will be so chuffed when I tell them."
But the father-of-two showed no signs of plans to kill himself that evening.
The coroner told the inquest: "We know what Lee did, we know he took his life. Why he did that we never will know.
"It would be pure conjecture to try and explain why he did it.
"All I would suggest is when you remember Lee you do remember him for the person who was the better person, the loving father and the person who was everyone's best friend."
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