Unacceptable cost of Deepcut

by georgehep

In this town, I do not need to explain the mind set of a fan except to point out that a fanship is not restricted to football.

I am a fan of Live Theatre. I buy a ticket for every play even though I occasionally come away disappointed and, on one occasion, walked out at half time. I am still booking for their new show in April and looking forward to it.

As a fan of Live Theatre, I went to see a play back in 2006 with the unlikely title ‘Geoff’s Dead: Disco for Sale’ about a father coming to terms with the death of his son at Deepcut Barracks. Another play in the same year focussed on the apparent suicide of another Deepcut soldier, Cheryl James.

It was as if theatre was the only way left to come to terms with unpalatable and unexplained  events at Deepcut.  Four army recruits, in training at Deepcut, were found dead with gunshot wounds in apparently unrelated incidents between 1995 and 2002.  The deaths were shoddily investigated by the Army and the parents claimed there had been a cover up.

Last week, a new inquest into the circumstances of Cheryl James’s death opened in Dorking. There may subsequently be inquests into the other deaths as well. If there is ever a film made about Deepcut, Shami Chakrabarti will have a cameo role  for the way her organisation, Liberty, has not given up representing  the case for the soldiers families.

Cheryl James, aged 18 from Llangollen, was the second of the four fatalities. She had only been at Deepcut for nine days in 1995 when, on overnight guard duty armed with a rifle, she was found with gunshot wounds in her head. The inquest took less than an hour and only seven witnesses were called. The Coroner returned an open verdict but was recorded by the Army as suicide.

In 2002, the four families called for a public inquiry. This was refused but led to an investigation by Surrey Police which concluded that there was no evidence of third party involvement. In 2005, a review by Devon and Cornwall police criticised Surrey for unduly assuming that all the deaths were suicides.

There was an inquiry behind closed doors by Nicholas Buxton QC in 2006 which concluded that the soldiers most likely took their own lives but which was highly critical of the culture at Deepcut at the time of their deaths.

Liberty took up the case on behalf of Cheryl’s parents in 2011 threatening Surrey Police with action under the Human Rights Act if they did not release the evidence concerning Cheryl’s death. The police handed over more than 90 lever-arch files of forensic evidence, photographs, statements and other evidence which has enabled Liberty to make the case for a fresh inquiry.

Last year, a second post mortem was conducted to clarify whether the bullet fragments in Cheryl’s James head were fired from her own rifle. The bullet fragment recovered after her death have been lost and the ammunition in the gun disappeared. At the pre inquest hearing in January, it was revealed that she had been raped shortly before her death.

The Coroner has promised a “full, frank and fearless” examination into the circumstances of Cheryl’s death but that he will not be drawn into whether “there was a culture of sexual abuse at Deepcut barracks, including the sexually inappropriate treatment of female recruits within the chain of command.” This time, the inquest is expected to last for ten days and to call 100 witnesses.

My heart goes out to Cheryl’s father, Des James, who is the same age as me and will be the first witness. He and his wife have lived through twenty years of denial, avoidance and delay and I hope they will feel that the new inquest will resolve the questions in their minds. Of course this is by no means certain until the coroner finally reports sometime after Easter.

After all this time, it is not so much a question of who pulled the trigger but why young people were put under such stress and degradation to be moulded into soldiers. Why were  the military authorities and the police so negligent in establishing what happened.

It is as everybody accepts that the deaths of young recruits are an acceptable cost of the brutalising process of producing a lethal military force The events at Deepcut may not be extraordinary. There have been an average of ten suicides and unexplained deaths in the Army each year for the last twenty years. In 2012 more soldiers and veterans committed suicide than were killed by the Taliban, according to a Panorama investigation. Soldiers are trained to do the jobs we do not want to do ourselves in ways we would prefer not to know about.

published in Newcastle Journal Tues 9th Feb 16