Supply chain 'chaos' to blame for death of Iraq soldier

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A "chaotic" army supply chain directly contributed to the unlawful killing of a British soldier in a bomb attack in Iraq, a coroner ruled yesterday in a damning judgment which is expected to have widespread implications for other casualties in combat. Equipment which could have countered the explosive device which killed Fusilier Gordon Gentle was not supplied to his regiment despite being available at the time, the inquest into his death was told.

The ruling by assistant deputy coroner Selena Lynch marked a clear benchmark on the culpability of the Ministry of Defence when it fails in its duty of care to service personnel, paving the way for compensation claims by bereaved families. It will also, say lawyers, lead to critical scrutiny of other cases where deaths of soldiers resulted from supply and equipment failures.

In the case of 19-year-old Fusilier Gentle, electronic counter-measures (ECMs) had not been fitted to the Land Rover in which he was on patrol when it was hit by a blast on 28 June 2004, the court at Oxford heard. As a result of a communications breakdown and a system the coroner described as "chaotic and lacking in clarity", they were not put in until hours after he died. At the time of his death, Ms Lynch noted, "the equipment was sitting in a storage container just 900 metres away".

The ECM would jam the signal to radio-detonated bombs.

Yesterday Fusilier Gentle's 43-year-old mother, Rose, said she was "carefully considering" whether to take legal action for compensation in light of the coroner's verdict. "My son died a hero, whether he died for his country or not I do not know. I now miss him more than ever," she said. "Justice has finally been done and the truth has come out. They have deprived me of a beautiful son and deprived two sisters of their brother. I am proud of Gordon but I am disgusted at the way he was treated. They have lied and covered up." Mrs Gentle continued: "If Blair had not sent our boys into Iraq on a false premise, Gordon would be alive today. I hope Gordon Brown gets our boys out without further delay."

In a scathing ruling, Ms Lynch said that Fusilier Gentle might well have survived the explosion had he been allocated the proper equipment. "He died as a result of injuries caused by the explosion and was unlawfully killed," said Ms Lynch. "It is probable that the device would not have been detonated if the escort had been equipped with an ECM, known as Element B. The essential components of Element B had become available from about 16 June 2004 but had not been collected from the stores.

"Formal notification of Element B's availability had not been sent to his unit due to a clerical error within the headquarters of the National Support Element. Effective action to recognise and rectify the error was not taken by the units responsible for the storage, issue and fitting and efforts taken by Fusilier Gentle's unit to obtain Element B were not sufficient to alert them to its availability."

The coroner also criticised the Ministry of Defence's policy of evidence disclosure to the inquest, declaring that it was "illogical and based on errors of law". Ms Lynch said she had tried to hold the inquest earlier but had been prevented by delayed release of documents and heavy editing of key documents. The issue of what exactly is presented in evidence to inquests in the future is expected to come under further examination.

A senior MoD official acknowledged that the coroner's ruling might lead to legal action regarding other dead service personnel but insisted that the circumstances surrounding Fusilier Gentle's death were "unusual". He continued: "What happened here was that equipment was available in theatre but not put on to the snatches [Land Rovers]. We do not know if there are many other cases like this. This is very different from equipment simply not being there because of lack of supplies. One cannot say there was negligence there because the stuff simply was not available."

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "We fully understand that this case is very important and we have given careful consideration to the verdict. The inquest found that there were problems with communication but it also did not point the finger of blame at any individuals.

"If there is legal action for compensation and we are liable then obviously we shall pay through the usual channels. Our thoughts and sympathies remain with the family, friends and colleagues of Fusilier Gentle at this difficult time. We were immensely saddened at his loss through an attack by insurgents and we deeply regret the series of events which contributed to it."

Angus Robertson, defence spokesman for the Scottish National Party, said the coroner's ruling exposed "serious failings" in the Ministry of Defence and vindicated Mrs Gentle's campaign. He added: "It underlines the need for the MoD to take its duty of care to service personnel in conflict zones much more seriously. The Secretary of State for Defence must make a statement on how he intends to remedy this situation, and to ensure that this never happens again."

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