Deepcut army barracks failed in its duty of care to young recruits, a coroner looking into the death of a soldier found shot has said.
Pte Cheryl James, 18 was found dead with a bullet wound to the head in 1995. She was one of four recruits to die at the base in seven years.
Coroner Brian Barker QC said it was regrettable there had not been a more thorough investigation at the time. “This has been a long and a difficult exercise,” he said. “Many events since the autumn of 1995 have had to be examined.”
Mr Barker said there were far too few officers at the Surrey Barracks to train and look after the young squaddies, who were left bored and indisciplined. “While some intermittent training was provided, there were too few permanent staff to deliver it and put into place a structured regime to occupy and meet a duty of care to those young men and women.”
Pte James, from north Wales, had been carrying out lone guard duty at the barracks when she was found dead, which the coroner said military rules should not have allowed. “It seems to me that lone armed guard duty is a potentially dangerous activity,” he said.
Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) meted out guard duty to trainees as punishment, which was against army rules. There was also overwhelming evidence of a “sexualised” atmosphere at Deepcut, Mr Barker said.
Given the “dearth” of a structured life, he said it was “unsurprising that trainees turned to each other for stimulation”. While sexual relations were not prohibited between trainees, the extent to which they were able to have sex was “inappropriate”, he said.
The coroner also found that there was evidence of inappropriate sexual relationships between commanding officers or instructors and trainees. Mr Barker said the Army accepted that some instructors “saw young females as a sexual challenge”. He also attacked the “haphazard” and “insufficient” provision of welfare support at Deepcut and criticised the lack of female officers. The coroner said, had Pte James’s death been more fully and scientifically investigated in 1995, some of the “inconsistencies of memory” might have been avoided and the scientific evidence might have been of much better quality.
The inquest, which is the second into Pte James’s death, began in February and heard from more than 100 witnesses. But the coroner said it was not a public inquiry into Deepcut in the 1990s and he would only look at criticisms of the culture and command at the barracks insofar as they were linked to Pte James’s death.
A first inquest into Pte James’s death in December 1995 recorded an open verdict. This second inquest was ordered after High Court judges quashed the original findings. The mother of another soldier who died, Pte Geoff Gray, said she was also applying for the open verdict on her own son’s death to be overturned.
Pte Gray, from Seaham, County Durham, was 17 when he was found dead from two gunshot wounds at the base in September 2001. Diane Gray said: “This case opens the doors for the other families to find out what happened to their children. “In the next few weeks we will be putting our application forward to the Attorney General to ask him to overturn our original verdict and look into new evidence and hopefully give us a new inquest.”
Surrey Police has apologised to the James family for the questioning by their barrister during the inquest, saying they showed “admirable resilience” throughout their long search for answers. “Any additional stress caused to the family during the inquest was not intentional and we apologise for any ways they feel Surrey police made the experience worse,” it said in a statement.