Northern Ireland

Girlfriend of dead soldier raises concerns over care for troops

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Media captionSharon Lemon was speaking to BBC Newsline's Mervyn Jess

The girlfriend of a soldier found dead in an Army barracks has raised concerns about the care given to services personnel returning from Afghanistan.

L/Cpl James Ross of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, and from Leeds, was found hanged in his room at Ballykinler base in County Down on 8 December 2012.

His girlfriend, Sharon Lemon, had raised the alarm after he failed to answer her calls and texts.

She said she had no idea he had any problems or was depressed.

Speaking exclusively to BBC Newsline, she said: "With James, the type of personality that he had, I would never ever have imagined this.

"He never was down, he was always so happy, so loving, so caring. There was no hints or clues that would have made me think he was depressed, let alone had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)."

James had completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan and, according to Sharon, was looking forward to a third.

She said: "He couldn't wait to go back [to Afghanistan]. In fact he was wanting to learn the native language. He absolutely loved the Army, he loved it."

'Top priority'

L/Cpl Ross, 30, had been at a function in the officers' mess the night before his body was found.

A second soldier, Rifleman Darren Mitchell, 20, was also found hanged at the base two months later.

A military investigation into the two deaths at Ballykinler is nearing completion, and no one from the Army was available for comment.

However, an earlier statement from the Ministry of Defence said "that the mental health of our personnel is a top priority which is why the government has committed £7.4m to ensure there is mental health support in place for everyone who needs it".

Sharon Lemon said she believed there were problems concerning care for troops returning from tours of duty.

"Whenever you look at the grand scheme of things, yes there is a problem that needs sorting. There was Darren, there was James, there is obviously something going on," she said.

"What that reason is I don't know. Is it because of where the barracks are, the isolation factor, is it to do with that, I don't know.

Image caption Two soldiers were found hanged at Ballykinler Army barracks

"In all honesty I don't know what happened to James, I don't know why he did it and I don't think we'll ever know the answer, and it's the same with other soldiers as well, we will never know the true reasons because they didn't tell us.

'Built to fight'

"In those kind of circumstances, if this is the ethos of 'you have to man up, you have to get on with things, you don't need help you just need to think about it and get on with it, go and do your duties', if this is what was going on in his head he wasn't going to ask for help.

"He wasn't going to go and speak to welfare, he wasn't even going to say to me because I was his girlfriend, they don't want to let their guard down.

"They're built to train and to fight and to kill but they're not built for coming home.

"I think the ethos will never leave about manning up, but these soldiers need to feel encouraged that they can open up.

"Whether or not that is to their fellow comrades, or to the higher ranks and authorities, or to their welfare officer, they need to be readily available to get this help. I'm not sure if they themselves can recognise it.

"As far as I'm aware PTSD is something you don't recognise straight away and it takes months in order for it to be diagnosed. So if people are confused about how they're feeling and they don't even know, how are they to go to a doctor and explain it?

"The higher ranks and authorities within the Army need to make sure that these guys feel they can go and talk to somebody about it, and that it is easily accessed.

'Little information'

"But if the guys aren't going to speak about it what can we do? I didn't know James had any issues and still to this day I don't know if this was what was going on in James's mind.

"Obviously there was something to make him do what he did but if they won't speak about it what can be done?"

She added: "I've had very little information from the Army, but in saying that I don't know how much information they have concerning it because we don't know the reasons why.

"They are doing their very best to try to get to the bottom of it with the inquiry and the inquest."

Prof Siobhan O'Neill, an expert from the Bamford Centre for Mental Health at Magee College in Londonderry researching PTSD, said spotting the condition is not easy.

She said: "Unfortunately a lot of people seem to think that coming forward to seek help is a sign of weakness and actually it's a sign of strength.

"Men in general are less likely to come forward for treatment or to acknowledge that they have mental health difficulties than women, and of course in the military environment we do have a predominance of men and a very macho environment which might in some ways discourage that."

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