British veterans who served in the deadliest Afghan town for UK forces are taking their own lives at an alarming rate, a Daily Mail investigation has found.
Soldiers who survived the bloodiest summer in Afghanistan’s most dangerous battleground a decade ago have been hit by a spate of recent suicides.
Bereaved families have accused the military authorities of failing in their duty of care and obstructing justice.
The Mail focused on one infantry company, which while serving in Sangin in the north of Helmand Province bore the brunt of the highest frontline casualty rate suffered by British forces in a single day since the Falklands War.
Inquest: Lance Corporal James Ross, 30, killed himself at the battalion’s Northern Ireland base in December 2012
C Company of 2 Rifles saw five dead and seven wounded in a Taliban attack involving improvised explosive devices and an ambush on July 10, 2009.
Three of the fatalities were teenagers. Three more young soldiers caught up in the attack or its immediate aftermath have since killed themselves, two in the past seven months.
The suicide rate for the men of C Company who were in Sangin in July 2009, approximately 80 soldiers in total, is more than 200 times higher than the average rate for men in the UK – 15.5 per 100,000 – which stands at its lowest level since records began.
At least three other servicemen who were with 2 Rifles in 2009 have also been found dead in the UK, as have two other young soldiers who served with 2 Rifles on its next Afghan tour. Others in the unit have carried out non-fatal self-harm.
The most recent veteran to die was father-of-two Corporal Jonny Cole, who made a number of suicide attempts before succeeding.
Wounded in a Taliban rocket attack and evacuated to the UK, Cpl Cole was seen in hospital by Prince Charles, who shook his hand and said: ‘Bloody good job.’
He was also thanked by the former UK commander in Afghanistan, General Sir Nick Parker, for the kindness he showed Gen Parker’s officer son, who was being treated in the next bed for severe IED injuries.
Previously Cpl Cole had guarded the Queen at Windsor Castle and sounded the Last Post at the Tower of London.
His father, a decorated British and US Army soldier who is now working for American veterans’ charity Wounded Warrior Project, helped train staff at its British counterpart Help For Heroes.
But speaking for the first time, Cpl Cole’s widow told the Mail that the Army ‘abandoned’ her husband and his family when his mental health deteriorated as a result of combat trauma.
Teresa Cole said: ‘He fought for Queen and country. But when he was medically discharged we were escorted off base as if we were criminals. They told me, “Don’t worry, the Rifles will look after you”. But that is not what happened.’
Kevin WIlliams, left, and John Paul Finnigan both took their own lives (pictured with Iraqi security forces in 2007)
The inquest of another 2 Rifles veteran of the devastating 2009 Sangin tour begins today in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.
Lance Corporal James Ross, 30, killed himself at the battalion’s Northern Ireland base in December 2012. His inquest will be held jointly with that of his colleague Rifleman Darren Mitchell, who took his own life at the same location six weeks later.
Rfn Mitchell had served on a later tour of Helmand Province. Their inquests have been delayed for six years because of legal argument between the families and the MoD. The hearing is expected to examine the mental impact on soldiers returning from their Afghan ‘hellhole’ to a remote barracks in County Down.
The threat of dissident IRA activity meant they were still not entirely secure. A number of incidents of self-harming by soldiers at the Ballykinler barracks have also been recorded.
Linda Ketcher, L/Cpl Ross’s mother, told the Mail: ‘These boys suffer from a mental, physical and emotional illness. Yet the Army and Ministry of Defence still take the view they need to pull themselves together, to “man up” in their parlance.’
Emma Norton, head of legal casework at Liberty and Mrs Ketcher’s solicitor, said: ‘The Army has been at pains to promote itself as inclusive and caring. But the facts prove otherwise. Our soldiers deserve better.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘Any suicide is a tragedy. We take the mental wellbeing of our serving and former personnel extremely seriously, and urge anyone struggling to come forward and access the care they deserve.
‘The MoD has increased spending on mental health to £22million a year, and the NHS has committed to expanding specialist health support for veterans across the country.’
- For confidential support, call the Samaritans on 116123, visit a Samaritans branch or see www.samaritans.org
Additional reporting: Simon Trump
‘I held his hand as he asked me to let him die’: Afghan war hero’s widow reveals how PTSD destroyed him
By Richard Pendlebury for the Daily Mail
Teresa Cole has two strong but very different memories of her soldier husband Jonny being treated in hospital.
The first was as a patient in the military unit at Selly Oak, Birmingham, in the summer of 2009. He had been airlifted to the UK from his base in Sangin, Afghanistan, after being wounded in a Taliban rocket attack.
‘Prince Charles suddenly appeared on the ward,’ recalls Teresa. ‘He shook Jonny’s hand and said, “Bloody good job”.’
In tears now, she remembers another incident in another hospital, a couple of years later. Jonny was shouting at staff as they tried to treat him for an attempted fatal overdose.
Jonny Cole, a father of two and veteran of the Army’s hardest fighting in the bloodiest summer of the Afghan war
‘He was in a private room and they wanted to give him something to make him sick,’ she says. ‘I could hear him yelling, “I want to die. Let me die”. I held his hand and tears were running down his face. He said, “I’m so sorry Teresa, but please let me die. You have to let me go”.’
Tortured, broken, Jonny Cole; a father of two and veteran of the Army’s hardest fighting in the bloodiest summer of the Afghan war.
On August 5 last year he was found dead in a park near his home in Derbyshire. His inquest will take place later this year; yet another inquest for a veteran of 2 Rifles’ tour of Sangin a decade ago.
‘Jonny went to war but a different man came home,’ says Teresa. ‘I would like people to know this is the way things end up for many Army veterans’ families. When someone kills themselves, it doesn’t end there. What I have seen in both our children is heartbreaking.’
Theirs could have been a story of love across a political divide; English soldier falls in love with Northern Irish Catholic girl and lives happily ever after. Instead, it became a tragedy. Who are the villains?
No one meant for Jonny to crumble and destroy himself. But post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) remains a killer of military veterans. Recent statistics suggest the threat is even growing. Military families have accused the authorities of paying lip service to the issue.
That is why Teresa has chosen to speak for the first time. The psychological impact on her and their two children has been immense. She and Jonny met one evening in 2001 in a pub in Enniskillen. He was a chubby, affable lance corporal from Derbyshire, serving in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment and based in nearby Omagh. She was a veterinary nurse. Within six months they were married.
‘When I told my father – who grew to be very fond of Jonny – he said, “You are my daughter and I love you. But you cannot be with a British soldier in Northern Ireland”,’ Teresa recalls. ‘I said, “I love him Dad and that’s that”.
‘He said that if I stayed, I’d be tarred and feathered. If I wanted a life with him, I’d have to go to England. And so that’s what I did.’ She and Jonny moved to Chester where, in 2004, his regiment were preparing for Afghan deployment. The tour was uneventful – Britain’s intervention in the Taliban heartland of Helmand was still two years away.
Their first child, a girl called Katelin, was born in October 2005. Six months later Teresa fell dangerously ill with viral meningitis and went home to Enniskillen to convalesce. After some resistance from the Army, Jonny got a transfer to 2 Rifles, based at Ballykinler in County Down. At the time it seemed like a godsend.
But it also meant he would be deployed with his new unit on Operation Herrick 10. By spring 2009, the situation in Afghanistan had changed drastically. Jonny’s C Company – 80 men – was sent to Forward Operating Base Wishtan; an outpost on the edge of restive Sangin town. The Taliban threat was so severe that Wishtan could go weeks without resupply.
Jonny and Teresa pictured on their wedding day. ‘Jonny went to war but a different man came home,’ says Teresa
‘When he was able to call me, he said it was a hellhole and he hated it,’ says Teresa. ‘He wasn’t getting my letters or parcels. He said, “All we have is water and pasta and the pasta is rationed”.’
July 10 saw the tragedy which ended or ruined the lives of so many at Wishtan. A foot patrol of around 30 men walked into a daisy chain of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One soldier was killed in the first blast and another seven badly wounded, including the major in charge of C Company and a platoon commander, who lost a leg and much of one hand.
As they regrouped, a second IED blast killed three more. A fifth died later. Three of the dead were teenagers, including Rifleman William Aldridge, 18, the youngest UK fatality of the entire Afghan campaign.
Jonny was in the Quick Reaction Force which raced from Wishtan to help. What he had to do then haunted him ever after. Teresa says: ‘He told me his job had been to go out on a quad bike and trailer and collect whatever was left. He said, “It’s hard when there’s nothing much going back in the body bags for the families”. He knew all the guys and could not come to terms with it.’ His own turn came 17 days later. A rocket-propelled grenade hit Wishtan, wounding nine soldiers, two very seriously. Jonny had extensive shrapnel injuries and was one of those sent to a UK hospital.
‘I did not recognise him at first,’ says Teresa. ‘He had lost two and a half stones in Afghanistan. I walked straight past his bed. He had to call out my name. When we hugged, he smelt of burned flesh. It turned my stomach. He was clingy and wanted to go home with me. He was surrounded by other men in a terrible bad way.’
One was Captain Harry Parker, the son of General Sir Nick Parker who in a few months would become British commander in Afghanistan. Captain Parker had lost both his legs to an IED blast. Jonny often fetched him water.
‘There was a lot of media interest in the young officer’s case and before we were allowed into the ward to see Jonny we were asked to sign confidentiality papers,’ says Teresa. ‘I told the sergeant in charge, “I am not signing that, you don’t own me”. He said, “You are not seeing your husband until you sign it”. So I did, but I was furious. Now it seems all of a piece.’
Prince Charles went to see Captain Parker on an unofficial visit. Teresa was on the ward with Jonny’s father Mike, a former Parachute Regiment soldier who had joined the US Army and become one of its most senior NCOs. Mike’s CO had given him the American combat wound medal the Purple Heart to present to Jonny.
Teresa says: ‘Before Prince Charles arrived, the NCO in charge said to me, “You better not open your mouth”. Now I wish I had. Something should have been done about the conditions they were enduring out in Afghanistan.
‘After shaking hands with the wounded officer, Prince Charles saw some of the other guys including Jonny. Mike showed him Jonny’s Purple Heart and he stopped because he was intrigued. And then he was gone as quickly as he arrived.’ Less than a fortnight later Jonny was discharged from hospital and sent home on sick leave. Within two weeks, it became apparent to Teresa that his injuries were not only physical.
One night, she heard a noise downstairs. ‘Jonny was hitting his head on the kitchen work surface. He began crying and said, “You don’t understand Teresa, it’s in my head”. All I could do was put my arms around him and say, “It’ll be all right”.’
In fact, it only got worse. ‘He would talk of the guys who died out there. He said, “It was my fault. It should have been me. Teresa, you have no idea what I saw there”.’
His mental state worsened when his best friend from his first days in the Army was killed that September by an IED. ‘In all that time we got not a word from the regiment asking how Jonny was doing,’ Teresa says. ‘I was telling them he needed help. Then he lost it. The worse he got the more he drank, hurting himself and eventually me.’
Christmas was ‘a nightmare’. Jonny hit Teresa and left the family home in the early hours of Christmas Day. He spent the holiday at his barracks.
Teresa’s family had lost patience with him. They changed the locks. When he returned on New Year’s Eve, he broke down the door and assaulted a policeman summoned to the scene. He escaped without criminal charge because the police officer had once been blown up by an IRA bomb. ‘He’s suffering from PTSD,’ the policeman told Teresa, sympathetically.
The Army disciplined him and sent him for treatment. When he returned home he blamed his wife for getting him into trouble. Then he apologised. ‘I told him, “You need help”. But by that stage I needed help, too. I was devastated.’
The downward spiral continued. A first suicide attempt took place in his room at Ballykinler. Then Teresa found out she was pregnant again. ‘My brother said, “This baby’s going to be Jonny’s saviour”. I went to camp to tell Jonny and he got down on his knees and told me he loved me and was sorry for what he had done.
‘He was so excited. He quit drinking. He came home and painted the spare room blue for a boy. I thought he would return to his old self. Dannon was born in August 2010 and Jonny was so attentive to me.’
It would not last. Six months later Jonny was caught drink-driving and disqualified. His commanding officer supported him in court but the Army was not impressed. His civil punishment also meant he could no longer commute to and from base.
A ‘deterioration’ set in. Teresa says the Army put Jonny on long-term sick leave. He was monitored by a military nurse but in 2013 he was medically discharged. Teresa says she has been told the official reason was tinnitus (hearing noises) caused by his active service rather than PTSD.
‘He was distraught because the Army was his life,’ she says. ‘He signed his papers and we were escorted to the barracks’ gate like we were criminals rather than a soldier who had served his country for 17 years.’
In March 2014, when Jonny was working as a lorry driver in London, flying home every fortnight, he was caught drink-driving again. He told his boss: ‘I’m going back to Afghanistan. I need to go back to where it all started.’ Then he just disappeared.
Teresa contacted police. Jonny was seen on CCTV boarding a ferry to Calais. His car was recorded as being in Amsterdam. For three months Teresa didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Then he phoned. ‘He told me, “Sorry, I can never come back. I am going to Afghanistan”. I pleaded with him, “Jonny you will never get to Afghanistan by car” and he replied, “Yes I will”.’
She managed to persuade him to stay with his grandmother in Spain. He was there for eight months, often drinking or taking drugs. He spent £20,000 that he’d withdrawn from the bank.
When finally he said he wanted to come home, she told him he couldn’t. ‘I regret it now but by then I was mentally unwell, too.’ Nevertheless, she paid for his flight to the UK. Jonny tried to build himself a new life. He even formed a new relationship and had another son. But the mental problems and drinking still plagued him.
Teresa says she begged him to seek counselling from Help For Heroes. But the charity could do nothing unless Jonny himself asked. In January last year, there was another suicide attempt. Teresa and their children saw him one last time on St Patrick’s weekend. ‘I hugged him and said, “Please get help”,’ she recalls. Five months later, his torment was over, at the age of 39.
The grief and shock of Teresa and their children continues. Jonny’s father, who has helped so many veterans, is also ‘devastated’ he could not save his son.
Teresa’s anger is directed at the military authorities. ‘His old commanding officer rang me after Jonny died and said, “Don’t worry, the Rifles will look after you”. But that is not what happened.
‘They made me go through hell and back. I had to fight for the support of military charities just to pay for Jonny’s funeral. Later, on his laptop, I found a load of letters to the authorities concerning the war pension he never received.
‘When I phoned the pensions people, I was told it was declined because Jonny was not injured in war. I told the woman she was talking about someone who was so badly injured in combat that he had to be airlifted to the UK for treatment.
‘The Army promised him the moon and the stars, but did nothing when he needed it most.’