- 19 декабря 2012, 23:02
Helen Perry says it was months before she discovered Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard was killed by British sniper
Helen Perry is not the only mother who has lost a son in Afghanistan, and not the only parent who will find Christmas an agonising test of recovery from grief.
She is unusual, though, in her determination to pursue the Ministry of Defence for the one thing she believes would help her lay her eldest son to rest: an apology.
Not for the fact that Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard died in a conflict zone where he might have expected to come under fire from insurgents. But because Pritchard, 22, was killed by a British sniper. Even in the fog of war, she argues, the army had a duty of care, and in this respect, it failed him.
"In the three years since we lost Michael, a lot of people have said that they cannot believe that this was allowed to happen," says Perry.
"But it did happen, and it happened to our son. The Ministry of Defence owe him an apology, if nothing else. That's what I want and need. Nobody has said sorry, and that is not right."
The apology has not come in the three years to the day since Michael died, nor it is likely in the two years in which British troops will remain in Afghanistan.
Perry believes too many lives have been lost already, though few quite match the circumstances of her son's death on 20 December 2009, which were set out in dispiriting detail during an inquest earlier this year.
A Royal Military police officer who was attached to the Rifles regiment, Pritchard had been put on duty at an observation post in the Sangin area of Helmand province, where the Taliban had fought hard for control. Another group of British soldiers were stationed at a separate observation post nearby, known as Sangar. They should have been aware that colleagues were positioned just a few hundred feet away, but they were not.
As darkness fell, and the soldiers became edgy, mistakes were made.
At Sangar, the soldiers could see movement further along the valley. A figure was standing on a roof and they assumed it was the enemy.
In the chaos that followed, and believing he was firing at an insurgent, a sniper, Lance Corporal Malcolm Graham, took aim. The inquest heard he fired the shot that killed Pritchard. How this was allowed to happen, nobody is quite sure.
One of Pritchard's colleagues told the inquest he heard permission had been given for Graham to fire. Frantic, he claimed, he radioed in to warn them not to shoot. Others told the hearing no such call was received.
Delivering a verdict of accidental death, the coroner Alan Craze, asked: "How did this fatal misunderstanding come about?"
The exact chronology may never be known, but of one thing the coroner and Perry are sure. Mistakes and incompetence led to Pritchard being shot – and his death was avoidable.
Perry says the way the family was treated in the weeks and months after he died raised their suspicions that the MoD was hiding something from them.
The family tried to find out exactly what had happened, but were told only that Michael had been hit in a friendly fire incident during an exchange of shots.
Five months later in May 2010, Perry, 50, found out the truth by chance, when she attended a medal ceremony in Aldershot for the troops who had returned home from Michael's tour.
"We went and Michael was awarded the Elizabeth Cross. When everyone was chatting, the Padre dropped into the conversation that Michael had been shot by a British sniper. He said: 'It must be difficult knowing that it was a British sniper.' That was the first I had heard of it. I didn't know that he had been targeted by a British sniper. We were led to believe there had been a battle going on.
"Nobody had told us. I think we were being deceived. Everyone kept telling us they didn't know. But they did know, and they lied to us for five months."
Little by little, the family began to piece together the story, and at the inquest, it became clear nobody was prepared to take responsibility for the mistakes, or explain to the family what had gone wrong.
The hearings proved to be another ordeal.
"It wasn't very dignified. We were made to feel very uncomfortable. Nobody explained to us we were going to be in the same room as the sniper who shot Michael. He had a minder with him."
The evidence revealed that a series of communication and command errors had put Pritchard's life in jeopardy, none of them his fault.
"I could not believe what I was hearing. We were expected just to accept it, and I don't think that is right at all. We are feeling let down in lots of ways. If this had happened to a civilian police officer, someone would have been held to account, but because it is the military, they live in their own world, with their own rules, which they interpret to fit the situation."
Perry says her daughters Katie, 27, and Erin, 14, share her bewilderment, and ask her why the MoD cannot say sorry.
"Nobody from the military has ever apologised. Not in public and not in private. No individual has said sorry to us for what happened.
"The only remorse shown has been by young soldiers from the Rifles regiment who had nothing to do with it. When the most precious thing in your life is taken away from you, the military just expects you to put up with it. But that is not right. We live and breathe this all the time. We talk about it all the time."
Perry, a nurse in a hospice, was very close to her son. He rang her three times in the week before he died, and she says she sensed fear in his voice the last time they spoke.
She says she is not interested in suing the Ministry of Defence, but is motivated by a sense of injustice.
"We don't want an apology to start a court action. But I think it would be good to set a precedent."
The family's lawyer, Geraldine McCool, says the MoD's reluctance to apologise in cases such as these reflects its concern about legal action. "But from a legal perspective I do not think that if someone gives an apology that is an admission of guilt. You cannot use an apology in that way. For me, the corporate can have a face and can apologise. It can deal with this case in a way that is both effective for the organisation and the individual.
"In this case the actions of quite a number of people came under scrutiny. Any number of actions could have broken that chain and the trigger would not have been pulled. In these circumstances you cannot just say that this is war and these things happen in war.
"From the family's perspective an apology would recognise the fact that this was a death that need not have occurred."
An army spokesperson said: "Our thoughts remain with Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard's loved ones. The army strives to give families the clarity they deserve as soon as possible and we are sorry that further distress was caused to Mrs Perry in this complex case. There was never any intention to withhold information from her. The day after LCpl Pritchard's tragic loss, evidence showed he was a victim of friendly fire and Mrs Perry was informed immediately.
"However, at that early stage, there was still insufficient certainty to confirm he had been shot by a sniper and it was thought to be inappropriate to provide Mrs Perry with potentially false or speculative information."
The MoD rarely, if ever, apologises for deaths in a combat zone, and is unlikely to change its policy.
Officials are concerned it will set a bad precedent, and are concerned about opening the floodgates to historic demands for apologies.
Though there is great sympathy within the MoD for Perry, the department believes it should not relent – even in a case as extraordinary as this.