Some 16 days since the conclusion of the Brecon Beacons inquest, it’s time to reflect on the coroner’s verdict and assess the lessons that need to be learned.
In July 2013, three supremely fit and experienced army reservists – L/Cpl Edward Maher, L/Cpl Craig Roberts and Cpl James Dunsby – died during an SAS selection exercise around Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons.
Part of a 78-strong group of soldiers trying out for the SAS, the three men were attempting to complete a 16-mile march against the clock, each carrying over 50lbs of equipment.
As temperatures soared towards 30°C later that day, the three men collapsed and were found in three separate locations at different times. When the emergency services arrived, it was too late. L/Cpl Roberts and L/Cpl Maher were pronounced dead on the same day and Cpl Dunsby died two weeks later in hospital.
All three soldiers died from heat injuries.
On 14th July this year, Coroner Louise Hunt delivered a conclusion of neglect, saying that the three men died as a result of “serious mistakes and systematic failures” on behalf of the Army.
The coroner listed the “gross failings” in the training exercise, including the facts that there was not enough water available, no proper risk assessment and no rescue plan in place.
In reaching a conclusion of neglect, the coroner said the Army had failed to properly manage and organise the march and, if it had followed its own guidance on avoiding heat injuries, the march would have been stopped and all three soldiers would have survived.
Climatic Injuries Policy Ignored
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has a policy on climatic injuries that recommends that a Wet Bulb Globe temperature monitor is used if there are signs of heat illness, and that officers in charge consider stopping the exercise.
Some senior officers in charge on the day say that they didn’t know about this policy and others say they were told they didn’t need to follow it. It’s shocking to think that there are official safety guidelines aimed at avoiding military training injuries, but some senior officers are ignorant of its existence – and others think they can simply ignore whatever the guidelines say.
The coroner found that, if the MoD’s climatic injuries policy was understood and adhered to on the day, the march would have been stopped at the first sign of a solider suffering from heat illness and all three men would have survived.
Soldiers’ Human Rights
The SAS is an elite military unit and all soldiers understandably undergo a very rigorous training programme.
Soldiers on the selection tests are still human though, and safety policies that apply to other armed forces personnel should also apply to them. The inquest heard how officers understood that candidates would have a “do or die” attitude, so they should have been even more determined to spot safety risks and stop the march as they knew candidates would be determined to complete the march at all costs.
Just because the training was for the SAS doesn’t mean that selection candidates have less human rights than other soldiers.
In law, the MoD cannot be held criminally accountable for a soldier’s death on a training exercise, whereas a civilian employer might be liable for corporate manslaughter if serious management failures result in an employee’s death.
Removing this immunity from prosecution would act as a deterrent and be one way of making the MoD more accountable for the safety of our armed forces personnel in non-combat situations. The threat of corporate manslaughter charges would not only help avoid tragic deaths like these happening again, but also help reduce military training accidents due to poor equipment or machinery that happen all too often.
Zoe Sutton is a Senior Associate Lawyer specialising in military accident claims at Slater and Gordon Lawyers UK.
Slater and Gordon Lawyers offer a free consultation for armed forces personnel injured during military service. Call us 24/7 on freephone 0800 916 9046 or contact us online and we’ll be happy to help you.