After Cpl Anne-Marie Ellement’s suicide, victims and relatives argue that the Army is failing its women
Before her suicide, Cpl Anne-Marie Ellement alleged that she was subjected to a campaign of bullying by female colleagues, including the girlfriend of the soldier she had accused of rape Photo: INS
By Sarah Rainey
8:20PM GMT 07 Feb 2014 The Telegraph
The buttons on her navy jacket gleamed and the peak on her scarlet cap had been polished until it shone. Standing to attention on her first day as a Royal Military Police officer, the smile on Anne-Marie Ellement’s face said it all: this was the moment she had been waiting for all her life.
A Thai boxing enthusiast who had worked as a supervisor in nightclubs in her hometown of Bournemouth, she was brave, ambitious and passionate about serving her country. “Anne-Marie had dreamed of joining the Army since she was a teenager,” explains her sister, Sharon Hardy. “When she was accepted it was one of her proudest moments.”
Just five years later, however, Cpl Ellement would feel very differently about life in the Armed Forces. On a cold night in October 2011, that same smiling young woman was found hanged from a fire escape at her barracks in Bulford, Wiltshire. The words “I’m sorry” were scrawled in lipstick on her mirror. Police found two beer bottles and an empty packet of Prozac pills in her room.
In 2009, Cpl Ellement, then 28, had accused two male colleagues of raping her after a night out. In an email to a friend, she described the incident as a “nightmare”.
“I came back with nothing on but a cardigan,” she wrote. She reported the crime to the Service Prosecuting Authority, which ruled that there was no chance of conviction. Over the next two years, she alleged, she was subjected to a devastating campaign of bullying by female colleagues, including the girlfriend of the soldier she had accused of rape.
An initial inquest into her death delivered a verdict of suicide – but heard no evidence from her family or about the rape allegations. This week, a second inquest opened in Salisbury, at which statements were heard from those accused of taunting her as “the girl who cried rape”. Cpl Ellement’s sister, Khristina Swain, says she is hopeful that this hearing will uncover the truth. “What she went through led a happy, confident woman to take her own life. What about the Army’s duty of care? Why was she called a liar and [apparently] bullied?”
Cpl Ellement’s family are not the only ones asking questions. Time and time again since the unexplained deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey in the Nineties, the ugly issue of bullying has made headlines. The latest Armed Forces attitude survey revealed a recent surge in incidents, with one in 10 respondents saying they had experienced discrimination, harassment or bullying in the past year.
And, as the number of female recruits grows – there are now around 18,000, representing 9.5 per cent of the British military – it is not only men but women who are being subjected to such barbaric treatment. The acts alleged by some whistleblowers go against the very core of the institution they serve: men and women united against a common enemy, yet inflicting acts of hatred on one other. Indeed, as Cpl Ellement’s inquest heard, female colleagues, too, may be turning against their own.
“The military is one of the last closed institutions in this country that hasn’t adapted to modern social values,” says Labour MP Madeleine Moon, who this week called for an Armed Forces ombudsman to adjudicate on internal complaints.
“As more and more women enter the military, we need to drive out old attitudes around bullying and sexual harassment. The trauma can be horrific. For too long it has been something you 'manned up’ about. The attitude is: don’t rock the boat.”
Those who have dared to do so are few in number. In 2003, Catherine Brumfitt, an RAF police officer, lost a claim against a sergeant whom she accused of sexual innuendo during training. The following year, Flight Lieutenant Padraigin Byard, 31, won her case after claiming her career was ruined by the attitudes of “chauvinistic” colleagues who agreed a “bounty” for the first man to have sex with her. Another, Cpl Leah Mates, 30, claimed that a campaign of harassment – including one alleged incident in which her face was placed on a shooting target – left her feeling suicidal.
These are all stories that Des James, father of Pte Cheryl James, the only woman to die at Deepcut, knows well.
In November 1995, his 18-year-old daughter was found dead at the barracks with a single bullet wound to her head. The Army said she had committed suicide, but an inquest recorded an open verdict – and for the past 18 years, Des and his wife Doreen have been fighting for her case to be reopened. Last October, with the help of the campaign group Liberty, they requested a second inquest.
“When she first came home on leave, she was absolutely blooming,” he remembers. “The last time we saw her was a few months later on October 22. She had come back for her 18th birthday, and was very weepy. We knew everything wasn’t OK.”
Just over a week later, Pte James was dead. “They [her superiors] sent her belongings back to us in bin bags,” says Mr James, from Gwent. “They tried to tell me the reason for her unhappiness was that she had two boyfriends and couldn’t make her mind up between them. That was ridiculous.”
He believes that his daughter’s death was connected to the culture at the barracks. “It wasn’t only bullying; they had no idea how to manage female and male recruits in the same place,” he claims. “It was completely out of control. There are horrific stories of a sergeant who threw darts at a young soldier until they stuck in his chest. What happened at Deepcut is that we scratched the surface and it was quickly painted over.”
Part of the problem, experts say, is that reports of bullying, harassment or abuse aren’t properly dealt with by military courts. In many regiments, traditional attitudes – the stiff upper lip, protecting the reputation of the Forces – remain, to the detriment of victims.
Lisa Langstaff of the campaign group Women Against Rape has accused the Ministry of Defence of a “concerted cover-up” of the full extent of sexual offences committed by military personnel. “There’s no oversight; no public accountability,” she explains.
“If you report it, it’s like you’re breaking ranks. It’s gone beyond one or two victims who had a hard time: this is a systemic problem.”
The statistics around sexual harassment are certainly concerning. Between 2001 and 2011, MoD figures show that 56 members of the Armed Forces were court-martialled for sexual offences – resulting in 16 convictions. In 2012, an internal investigation found that all 400 female soldiers questioned at a base in Wiltshire reported “unwanted sexual attention” in their careers. And cases continue to emerge. This week, a female sailor took the MoD to court after claiming she was sexually assaulted by a British soldier in Afghanistan while guarding a terrorist.
The MoD insists it has a “zero tolerance approach” to bullying, discrimination and abuse. “We recognise that it takes great courage for any individual to come forward and report a sexual offence and we have taken steps to improve training and awareness and to ensure that personnel know how to report concerns,” a spokeswoman says.
But victims say it isn’t so straightforward. Donna Rayment, a former Territorial Army driver from Essex, was 17 when she first experienced improper behaviour from military colleagues. “There was a staff sergeant who fancied me and I didn’t respond to his advances, so he made my life hell,” she explains. “On weekends away he’d make me sleep on a concrete floor when everyone else had campbeds.” In 1999, while serving in one of the reserve squadrons of the SAS, she was in Germany after a training exercise when, she alleges, she was attacked by two trusted colleagues. “We had a few drinks and I went to their hotel room for food,” she recalls. “I fell asleep and woke up to find my staff sergeant and the other driver sexually assaulting me.”
Ms Rayment reported the incident but says she was told it was her fault and was made to sign a letter dropping her allegations. Rumours followed her throughout her career – and she was dismissed from the Forces in 2005.
Now 45, she continues to be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, and plans to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the treatment she was subjected to amounted to torture. “Military rape is like you’re being abused by your own family,” she explains. “I trusted them like brothers. On civvy street, it would be like going up to the parents of the person who’d abused me and asking them to discipline their child. I haven’t done anything wrong; all I’ve done is spoken out.”
Emails sent by Cpl Ellement before she died point to a similar state of mind. “I’ve had pretty much a total meltdown here,” she wrote to a colleague. “I can’t stay with RMP as they are. Justice is ----.” As details of her final weeks emerge in court, her family hope that, this time, the verdict will bring not only justice for their sister, but awareness of a culture that, left unchecked, can have the most tragic of consequences.
For Ms Rayment, the outcome is particularly poignant. “In 2011, I was at Colchester Military Court going through my own enquiry the same week that Anne-Marie died,” she says. “If I’d known about her, what she was going through, I would have gone to the barracks and knocked on her door. Maybe, then, things might have been different.”