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Deepcut: Another army mess
Sean Benton inquest, Issue 1463
sean-benton.jpg
Sean Benton, who was 19 when he arrived in the toxic atmosphere at Deepcut barracks in Surrey
WHAT a coincidence that the army’s new recruitment campaign promising soldiers “emotional and physical” support was launched just before the inquest opened into the death of Sean Benton – the first of the four young recruits to die from gunshot wounds at the Deepcut army barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002.

The allegations of violence, “beastings till you are sick” and verbal and physical bullying emerging at Surrey coroner’s court – even though they date back almost 23 years – cannot help an army currently in the midst of a recruitment crisis. Some of the worst perpetrators, said to be running a camp “based on fear and humiliation”, were the non-commissioned officers (NCOs) – the very people tasked with the support and welfare of new recruits.

Former recruits, who are now in their forties, are alleging that the worst of those was Sgt Andrew Gavaghan – described as a Jekyll and Hyde character who would turn into his “angry and evil twin brother” to terrorise recruits. Gavaghan, who is legally represented, has been in court to hear former recruits describe how even now he still had that same “chilling” effect on them.

It was into this environment that, on 12 September 1994, 19-year-old Sean Benton arrived, having completed his initial ten-week training at neighbouring Pirbright. Sean was, said his report, “an excellent example of how, with care and attention, a recruit could improve”. The man who wrote it, retired Major Samuel Porter, told the inquest Sean had originally struggled with discipline, concentration and fitness, but at around week seven it all “clicked” and he passed all qualifying tests. Porter said it reflected well not only on Sean, but also on the training staff who had guided him. “I detected a glimmer of hope for him as a soldier,” he said.

Access to alcohol and loaded weapons
But Deepcut was no Pirbright. The coroner, judge Peter Rook QC, was told that Deepcut was a risk from the outset, hit by a “double whammy” of significant cuts in defence spending and major reorganisation. Five corps merged into the huge 17,000-strong Royal Logistics Corps, and all training – under-17s, male and female – was combined for the first time.

A decision to “redirect pressurised resources” to frontline services meant Deepcut paid the price. While the ideal staff-to-recruit ratio is one to 12, at Deepcut during the day there was only one instructor for every 100 recruits; at night it was down to one for every 200. Days were filled with parades, menial tasks and long hours of guard duty. Access to alcohol and loaded weapons was part of the mix. There was no staff nor system in place to pick up “struggling” recruits.

Kicked in the head
Sean, described as a bit of a joker, soon came to the attention of the NCOs. According to some recruits, he was “picked on” and his treatment went beyond acceptable army discipline and any need to “build backbone” and toughen up recruits. One former recruit, Neil Williams, described an incident shortly before Sean’s death, when, hidden by camouflage gear, they were both kicked in the head by one of two sergeants. He did not see which, but one of them was Sgt Gavaghan. Sean, who received a heavier blow, was “in discomfort and shock”. About a week before his death, Sean had also shown him a deep bruise over his kidney, but refused to say who had injured him.

Mr Williams said that during those final weeks Sean deteriorated and stopped taking care of himself. The inquest has heard that as he became more troubled and depressed, Sean took an overdose of paracetamol and on one occasion, when drunk and tearful, had injured his neck walking through a glass door.

Two female recruits, who were among the last to see Sean alive, described how Sean had woken them as they slept between guard duty shifts. In tears, Clare Knowles described Sean asking her to check his spelling and phrases for letters he was writing, but she was too tired. “We were only kids and I was knackered and I didn’t know what his intentions were, but… it’s still in back of your mind, isn’t it?” she said.

The inquest heard that one letter, urging a friend to keep smiling and learn from Sean’s mistakes, said: “Do not let anyone or anything crack you up.”

‘Firm but fair’
After persuading a fellow recruit to hand over his weapon, Sean died from five gunshot wounds to his chest in the early hours of 9 June 1995.

Coming so long after his death, the inquest is inevitably hampered by faded and distorted memories. It is clear not everyone had a bad experience at Deepcut – a couple of former recruits described Sgt Gavaghan as “firm but fair”.

The inquest is also weakened by a complete lack of forensic evidence. Although Surrey Police immediately dismissed the death as “suicide”, the coroner has been told that within a couple of hours of Sean’s death, fellow recruits – including, incredibly, his friends – were asked to comb the area for “two or three” spent cartridges and to clean up blood.

The inquest is expected to last until April and hear from 150 witnesses. As well as evidence of Sean’s alleged mistreatment at the hands of named individuals, the coroner is also due to hear from nine experts, including new pathology and ballistic evidence. It will also examine the army’s duty of care to recruits – and why it took eight years and four deaths at the barracks before any meaningful change was implemented.

The coroner said at the outset that his role would involve ensuring that “culpable and discreditable conduct is exposed and brought to public notice, and that suspicions of wrongdoing, if unjustified, are allayed”. The question is: how far up the military chain will he look?

The inquest continues.

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