A minister was forced to backtrack after claiming a British veteran who served in Afghanistan had taken their own life – admitting he had made a “deeply embarrassing” mistake after seeing the post on social media.
Armed forces minister James Heappey said on Monday morning that a soldier who had been with him on his own last tour in Afghanistan had died by suicide in recent days, apparently distraught over the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
But Mr Heappey later apologised and said the claim was “inaccurate” – revealing that he had based his claim on an apparent suicide note posted on social media.
“A suicide note was shared on social media at the back end of last week which referred in very, very accurate detail to the tour that I served on which was with 2 Rifles in Sangin in 2009,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
The minister added: “I am deeply embarrassed to have reflected on something which I had seen on social media, and struck me as very true and had affected me deeply.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said it was still looking into the viral social media post shared on Facebook – but officials believe it is likely to be a fake.
The Independent understands that MoD is still looking into the origin of the initial post as well as double-checking service personnel records. But officials have conducted an initial check through personnel records, and are confident the suicide note is fraudulent.
The blunder occurred when Mr Heappey told Sky News host Kay Burley that at least one veteran from the conflict had taken their own life “because of their feeling over the consequences of withdrawal”.
But he later corrected himself on both BBC’s Breakfast and GMB – and apologised to Sky News journalists on Twitter for making the claim on air.
“I’m sorry to have said something that might not be true. The note referred very accurately to my last tour of Afghanistan with 2 RIFLES in 2009 & I’ve spent weekend fearing colleague had taken their life,” said Mr Heappey.
He added: “However, MoD aren’t certain that note is real so wanted to clarify … Army & MoD working quickly to establish whether note is real or not.”
Despite making the claim during his Monday media round, the defence minister also admitted there had been “an awareness, I think, already within the MoD over the weekend, that potentially that suicide note may not be real”.
Mr Heappey, a former army major who served in Afghanistan with The Rifles, said his “main message” had been that too many veterans had taken their own lives while struggling with mental illness in recent years.
“I’m very worried about the mental health my friends and former colleagues at his time,” Mr Heappey said. “That’s why the government, the nation, needs to put our arm round our veterans and tell them how proud we are of what they did.”
Boris Johnson will announce details of an additional £5m to help military charities offering support on mental health issues to veterans with the aim of ensuring “no veteran’s request for help will go unanswered”.
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