Suicide in Basra: The unravelling of a military man

"Imagine your worst day and multiply it by a thousand," Ken Masters told his wife by telephone from his posting in Basra. A soldier whose military career had taken him from Northern Ireland to Hong Kong and Iraq, he seemed ideally suited to the Army life. Yet cast adrift in a war which has taken conflict to new levels of cruelty, something, deep in his psyche, shattered. Using Capt Masters' own correspondence, Ian Herbert pieces together his tragic story for the first time.

Thursday 22 September 2011 07:37

After a flawless military career that had seen him rise to the rank of captain in just 15 years, the task of leading the British Military Police's investigative unit in Basra should have been the crowning achievement for Ken Masters, a soldier for whom, on missions from Afghanistan to Bosnia, the glass was always half full.

"The accom is good," he told his wife Alison in a letter sent soon after he had reached his garrison in the southern Iraqi city in April last year. "It is air conditioned and we have two windows either end and a real bed and proper mattress, which makes a difference. Missing you all. Love to you and my girls. Daddy xxxooo." This was the way he signed each of the many letters he sent from Iraq to the home they had made in Porta-down, Northern Ireland.

But Capt Masters never made it back. Six months after sending that letter, he walked into his small barrack-room at the Waterloo Lines military camp and took his own life. Aged 40, he was five days away from the end of a tour that had reduced him from a high-flying officer, and prospective Major, to a broken man.

He is one of two British soldiers - both from the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) - to have committed suicide in the current conflict.

Today, the story of Capt Masters' mental disintegration can be told for the first time. Pieced together from the testimony of his wife and colleagues, and from his own letters and e-mails from Basra, it provides a sense of the pressure facing the small Military Police team he led which, amid political pressure for quick results, has investigated mounting abuse allegations against British troops.

The story also raises a profound question about a military establishment that is sending hundreds of men and women to serve under enormous daily pressures in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is this: how could Capt Masters have been allowed to die when so many people knew he was suffering?

"Imagine your worst day and multiply it by a thousand," Capt Masters told his wife in one of their regular Sunday evening telephone calls (each of them was limited to 20 minutes) towards the end of his life.

It was worlds away from the evening in 1987 when, aged 21, he had met Alison at the Down Royal hotel in Northern Ireland, two days after arriving as an SIB sergeant. Sgt Masters was born to serve his country. The youngest child of a Royal Navy man from Aberdeen, he had joined the Army cadets at 12 and was devoted to his calling. "He talked of little else. He lived and breathed it," his wife says.

Working for the SIB - the military equivalent of the CID - came naturally, say those who served with him at that time. "He had a sharp mind under pressure," recalls Mark Barlow, a barrister, who served as an SIB sergeant alongside him in Northern Ireland and was best man when Ben and Alison married at the Presbyterian Church in Alison's native Lisburn in 1989.

It was a tough existence for the SIB - the arm of the Royal Military Police responsible for investigating any possible offence committed by British forces, from unlawful killings to theft and drunkenness on duty. Predictably, its remit does not always endear "the Branch" (as it is known) to other soldiers. But in the Northern Ireland days, before the Army's redundancies cut its size, there was at least strength in numbers. "There was always a conversation for each of the Branch men; somewhere to turn to in the Army after a bad day," says Alison, whose memories of those years include the day her husband discovered a baby's lifeless body on a roadside after an atrocity.

The young Sgt Masters investigated the British Army's response in the case of Michael Stone, the loyalist gunman who killed three mourners in a cemetery in west Belfast in 1988, and the shooting dead by British special forces of three IRA members in Gibraltar the same year. "He was comfortably up to it," says Barlow. "He wasn't a flapper."

Later postings took Capt Masters and his young family all over the world. He was determined that every assignment - Hong Kong, Osnabrück, Bosnia (where he was twice decorated) and Belgium - should be opportunities for their daughters Kirsten, now 14, and Hannah, 12. During the Belgian stint, the Masters family shopped together in Paris, skied in Bavaria and twice visited Disneyland Paris.

"He was the kind of person who took every kind of posting and made the most it, even if it meant dragging the girls out," Alison says. He also took SIB teams on recreational trips up Kilimanjaro and skiing in Aspen. He studied for BSc and LLB degrees at the Open University and, to enable him to help the girls, he was studying for GCSE maths (to add to his O-level in the subject). Then, in November 2004, word came through that he was to go to Iraq.

In small, intangible ways, the Iraq tour seemed different; more hurried, less ordered. When Capt Masters' section had been posted to Afghanistan in 2002, the families were called in and shown a film about where the soldiers were to be stationed. "It meant that when your husband said, 'I've been in the Naafi today,' you knew what it meant," Alison says. For Basra, she had to make do with a sketch of his barrack room that Capt Masters had drawn and sent back for his daughters in Portadown. For Kabul, there had been a dedicated Army liaison officer should anything go wrong. But not so for Basra.

It was at 5am on 3 January 2005 - his 40th birthday - that Capt Masters stole out of the house to join a week-long training course for Basra. He left Britain three months later.

His first letters home revealed what was to become a regular routine of running in the cool of the early morning and evenings spent watching DVDs - from King Arthur to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - on a laptop. "Time flies. I can't believe I've been here for two weeks," he wrote on 17 April.

No one could say that this "Officer Commanding", as his staff knew him, had ever shirked the task of investigating soldiers who had stepped out of line. His work on drug abuse in the military in the Nineties was recently credited in the Royal Military Police Journal as being critical to the SIB's shift "from a passive, intelligence-gathering unit to a high-profile investigative unit".

But Basra was a different proposition. Never before had British forces faced such damaging allegations of abuse and impropriety. As Capt Masters settled in at Waterloo Lines, 11 soldiers were being investigated in relation to the death of the Basra hotel receptionist Baha Mousa; five more had been charged after photographs of troops abusing Iraqis at Camp Breadbasket came to light; and three British soldiers were about to be charged for war crimes under the International Criminal Court Act. It was his small unit's task to investigate these matters, along with other, more minor transgressions.

It was on 17 May that signs of rancour over the Branch's role in Basra first surfaced in his e-mails. "Our lads have started upsetting a few people while doing their job and a few complaints have come in about how a certain individual of mine spoke to people," he wrote. His findings reflected the intense political debate raging at home about the SIB's role, in which some military leaders were suggesting that its actions bordered on the unpatriotic.

In the House of Lords on 21 July, the respected former Chief of the Defence Staff Field Marshal Lord Inge said of the SIB's policy: "[Soldiers believe it] to be unduly aggressive and biased, and that it appears to be based on the supposition that those whom the Branch is investigating are guilty and that it is its duty to prove it."

In Basra, there were also signs that Capt Masters had not taken to his immediate boss, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stenning, the Provost General, for whom the SIB's work was just one area of responsibility. "Yesterday, he phoned me about six times in the space of an hour, all about rubbish really," he wrote in one e-mail. In another, he said that life had "suddenly become very hectic around here".

Capt Masters had lost a substantial amount of weight by the time he returned home in late July for 10 days' rest and recuperation at his attractive detached home on the outskirts of Portadown, which he and his wife had bought as a base to get their daughters settled just before his call-up to Iraq. "He looked tired and grey," his wife recalls. He evidently took his anxieties home with him, e-mailing his second-in-command several times from Portadown about an impending inspection that worried him.

He and his wife resolved to e-mail each other on his return - and it was this correspondence that revealed the most marked downturn in his mental state once he was back in Basra. "Two things have gone wrong and I guess my boss knows about both," he wrote on 31 July. (His relationship with Lt-Col Stenning was a feature of his e-mails from then on.) He fretted about not putting an "out of office" notice on his PC and was convinced that the inspection would go badly. "I honestly think the boss will want to get rid of me for this, and I can't blame him," he told his wife.

Within three days, things seemed to be better. "Things aren't as black as they were on Sunday morning," he said. But the limited resources available to the SIB in Iraq meant that Major "Taff" Pickering - the senior officer with whom he could have discussed issues, as in Afghanistan or Bosnia - was based back in Whitehall. "I miss having a boss one up from me that I can run things past," he told his wife.

His correspondence revealed that the pressure was leading to self-doubt, verging on paranoia. He was racked with indecision and was sleeping only three or four hours a night.

What effect was the knowledge of her husband's decline having on his wife? "I knew what the pressures were doing to him, but I was in a quandary," Alison says. "Ken had been told he would get his commission [which would keep him in the military until the age of 55] when he got back from Iraq. He felt this was our security for life, and I didn't want him to feel I'd jeopardised that.

"If I raised what he was telling me with the Army, that's what might have happened. I just had to hope that since I knew what was happening hundreds of miles away, those close to him would too."

Alison sought subtle ways of influencing the situation. She persuaded her husband to see a military doctor in Basra, who referred him to a psychiatrist nurse, Cpl Karen Mason. At the inquest into Capt Masters' death, held last month, Cpl Mason revealed that during their 90-minute session he had described feeling "unable to cope with pressure from above", but that he had cancelled a second session two weeks later. She did not pursue the issue, since he did not seem to pose a suicide risk.

Many others recognised worrying behaviour traits, though. At the inquest, two serving soldiers told the Wiltshire coroner David Masters (no relation) about his obsessive doodling. David Clare, a staff sergeant in the Branch, described how, in early September, he would find him "just wandering up and down the SIB and accommodation [block] without apparent purpose. Also, he would seem to ask me the same questions, over and over again."

An interpreter assigned to the SIB, Sarra Abdulatti, seems to have had the clearest grasp of the position. "[He] would often just sit, looking into space and would then get up and walk off," she said, describing his behaviour in early September. "I told him, 'Sir, I'm getting really worried about you. I think you're crossing the line between being very depressed and suicidal."

The Branch in Basra should have known all about suicide risk. One of its young officers, a Liverpudlian staff sergeant, Denise Rose, had become the first British servicewoman in the conflict to take her own life in Iraq, in October 2004.

Alison had also encountered suicide at this time. She had taken a chef's job at a sandwich shop in Portadown, and a 21-year-old female staff member there had taken her own life. "I don't want to go through that [experience] again," she told her husband in one of their telephone calls. "I hope you won't," replied Capt Masters, who mentioned the suicide to his mother, Elma, and asked her to "keep an eye on Alison".

As her husband's moods continued to swing, Alison contacted their old friend Mark Barlow and encouraged him to undertake an independent e-mail contact in an effort to lift her husband's spirits. He was not to say that she had approached him. "I thought Ken might work things out with Mark that he couldn't with me."

The two men's e-mail exchanges suggest that this helped, and although allegations against British forces continued - the next high-profile abuse case centred on claims by Iraqi brothers that British troops had stolen their family car and cash - there was reason for optimism. "Not long now," Capt Masters told his wife in an e-mail sent at 5.20am on 14 October: "U and the girls are keeping me going, I can tell you. Love you all very much. Daddy xxxooo." These were to be his last words to Alison.

At 10pm on the morning of Saturday 15 October, Cpl Bryn Williams asked Capt Masters for permission to use his phone at the barracks. No reply was forthcoming from the commanding officer, who was sitting at his desk, staring into space.

Cpl Williams used the phone, and said, "Cheers sir," as he left. Again, there was no reply. Cpl Williams considered this "strange", and Capt Masters' absence for the rest of the day, highly unusual, was remarked on. But it was not until 7pm that officers broke into the room and found him hanged. He had left two suicide notes: one to the Army, blaming himself for his death, and the other to his wife. The inquest found that he had taken his own life.

The tragedy is a reflection of the inadequate resources available in Iraq to investigate allegations of abuse, according to one military analyst, Charles Heyman, who points to the reduced size of the SIB since Capt Masters' Ulster days. "He would have been grossly overworked in Basra," Heyman said. "There are just so few of them to do the work. Almost every time a shot is fired, investigations have to be made. The military finds itself under severe pressure because they have lost a lot of personnel and taken on a lot more commitment."

Alison believes that some unexpected event in the final days of his life might have contributed to his suicide. "He was five days from home. The torture for him was over," she says. "There was no hint of this and something must have happened."

She has had much to contend with since her husband's death. Nine months on, she is still waiting to hear whether the life assurance company with which the MoD encouraged soldiers to take out policies considers his to have been a death in service, which would mean it will pay out.

In the meantime, she has recently received a £14,000 demand from the Army, which says it has overpaid her husband's pension. It is of less significance to Alison that the Prime Minister's claim that he has written to the families of all those bereaved as a result of the Iraq conflict is not true in her case.

Her overriding concerns are for those who must endure the personal agonies her husband had gone through. "Ken did not suffer in silence," she says. "I knew what he was feeling, many of his colleagues knew and medical staff knew - and yet there was no system in place for those concerns to be raised without it damaging his career. That has to change." Through her MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, she has requested a meeting with the Ministry of Defence to discuss her concerns. As yet, she has not been granted an appointment.

Though he ended his life tortured by self-doubt about his role in Britain's struggle in Iraq, Capt Ken Masters might have been gratified to know that he was, to the last, considered the finest of commanding officers. "To me, proof of his excellent performances was reflected in the fact that his unit handed over so few unfinished jobs to their replacements," said Lt-Col Stenning after his death. "Any successes must be attributable in some way or another to Ken."

Capt Master's letters


I officially took over this morning at 9am. The accom is good, it is [an] air conditioned hut [which has] 2 windows either end and a real bed and proper mattress which makes a big difference to comfort. I have continued my running here. There is a long straight gate from where we are and there and back is 5 miles. I have also borrowed a laptop computer so I can play DVDs on it. We have pretty much everything we need here. Laundry service every day, good food in the local cookhouse and good office space. We even have an R&R centre which is in Kuwait, about 2 hours away.


Things are ticking along nicely. My No 2 and I are slowly finding out how we like to work together and it is basically the same, which is good news. I am getting loads of sleep, averaging going to bed about 9pm and sleeping to 6.30am. We have been given some Haagen Dazs ice cream they sell at the Naafi. I had Belgian chocolate and if you fancy a treat, get that, it is nice.


Hello there and it is pay day again... I have signed up for another GCSE maths course at our local education centre [to help his daughters study for theirs]. We shall see if I manage to complete this one. I went out for a 5-mile bike ride this morning which wasn't too bad at all... I visited one of my police posts yesterday and it was in a right state so I had... to get it sorted out. Our uniformed colleagues don't really have a clue. It's all about taking responsibility which no one seems to want to do.


Another quick note to let you know what I am up to over in this place... I played football last night with some of the lads and this consists of running around a gravel pitch for an hour, which is hard going. I had a sense of humour failure yesterday when I discovered the uniform lot we are looking after haven't had their equipment checked in over a month. It's supposed to be weekly, as we do it... The problem here is we all have to look after ourselves and there is a huge amount to think of and check all the time. The RAF lads are only doing four months [tour in Iraq, rather than six]. This means they will be eligible for another tour in 18 months. They are talking about Afghanistan again.

17 MAY

Hello there and another day, another dollar. I didn't get a good night's sleep. It must have been because I was too warm as I kept waking up... Our lads have started upsetting a few people while doing their job and a few complaints have come in about how a certain individual spoke to people. I personally don't have a problem with this as we are not there to be nice to people... Unfortunately we are now in such a fluffy scenario that people don't expect to be given a rough time. Ah well, such is life. It will die down in a few days when somebody has something else to complain about.

31 MAY

Hello... We have been very busy and it's the usual thing - you think you have taken care of everything and then something else happens and you get let down by one of your team... It doesn't help getting pressure by my immediate boss. Yesterday he phoned me about 6 times in the space of an hour, all about rubbish really. I have stopped getting worked up about things, there really is no point.


I have arrived back okay [from Ireland] but as usual I couldn't sleep and I had a peek at [work done in my absence]. 2 things have gone wrong and I bet the boss will know... The inspection on Tuesday is asking for all sorts of things we don't have... I honestly think the boss will want to get rid of me for this and to be honest I can't blame him as it is all down to me at the end of the day. To say I am sh... myself is an understatement.


I'm glad the day went well [for you]. As usual I lurch from one crisis to another and I think I may have dropped myself in it by some advice I gave last week on a job and it's come back to bite me. It could mean me being suspended and being investigated for neglect of duty. Is this the way I shall end my Army career I wonder. Maybe I will get back earlier after all. I need to do something as everything appears to be a crisis to me at the moment. I have finished your sleeping tablets so will have to see what happens next.


Hello to you all and another day and another dollar as they say (57 days to go)... I managed a long chat with the CPN [community psychiatric nurse] yesterday. I ended up chatting for one and a half hours which is pretty good going really. She told me the reason I didn't sleep the other night was due to the large amount of tea and coke I had drunk. I didn't want to mention [my boss] to her but I couldn't help it and it is confidential in the end... [My boss] blows hot and cold all the time. Roll on October. It is starting to get beyond a joke now with our leaving dates. My team are getting restless and asking all the time what's going on with the dates.


Hello again and a few more lines to tell you how much I am missing you all. It's hard to stay positive in this environment. I am still not sleeping well and talking to others it seems common. I have a goodish night (5 hours) then a bad night (2 hours) and so it goes on. I am sorry to sound so negative but this place and thing that I am worried out [his belief that his boss thinks he is incompetent] really is getting me down no end.

The current caterers, a UK firm, give it all up in six days' time as they have lost the contract to a cheaper firm (from India). Apparently, the present ones were offered a job at a 50 per cent wage cut with the new company and not surprisingly they have all told them to poke it and are going home, lucky them.

Maybe this is where I take my leave of the Army. I have to go sometime. I just don't fancy having to go unaccompanied again somewhere. This has really knocked the stuffing out of me as you can tell [and] the problem is [that] these tours will become more the norm. They are already talking about Afghanistan.


I am up and down like a bloody roller coaster... This place has changed me, it really has, and [it's] all my own doing. It seems every bit of news is crap and it doesn't help not having an immediate boss, say a major, to speak to - to get some top cover. I have someone in the UK but it's not the same. I am really not happy with this place.


I am beside myself... there is so much to do and so little time. It is all my own stupid fault leaving it so long... I can't seem to concentrate... and every decision I make seems to go wrong. I organised to go to another camp and told everyone and when I thought about it [I realised] I didn't have to go and now that will be three wasted days. I am positive [my number 2] thinks I am a complete idiot...


I have done some really stupid things on this tour and now I am turning myself inside out about it. I have no idea why this tour has turned out like this. Kabul was no problem but then I didn't take on so much as I have. I have taken on too much and tried to do the right thing but really messed up...This could result in me losing my job and even my pension which I can tell you is a massive thing as it's worth thousands. We could lose the house if I lose my job...


I am... hyper at the moment, what with the handover looming. As usual there is too much to do and not enough time. God I wish all this would disappear, it is really grating on me. I just hope the handover goes okay and we can get away. They are talking about my replacement being late coming over and of me staying a few days later.


I can't wait to see where u work and taste the scones and sandwiches. I'm sure they taste lovely. Love you darling and love the girls and always will. I am blessed to have such a fantastic family and good proper friends who care about me.


I hope u r all well and working hard. I am getting sorted for the handover and as usual I have left everything to the last minute and [am] burning the midnight oil. Not long now though. U and the girls are keeping me going I can tell you. Love you all very much.

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