Surrey Soldier Inquest

Lance Corporal James Hill, of the 1st Battalion The Coldstream Guards, died on the firing range 2.5 miles outside Camp Bastion in central Helmand, Afghanistan, on October 8, 2009.

The parents of a soldier who died in a bomb attack on an insecure training range have said their son was ``utterly failed'' by the Army as a coroner ruled that it failed to take action to prevent his death.

He was due to get married on his return from the war zone.

Surrey Coroner Richard Travers said the chain of command had not listened to concerns raised about the potential of insurgents targeting the range and had not provided sufficiently trained units to clear the site of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The inquest heard that the firing range was ``swamped'' by locals scavenging for scrap metal after each session - providing insurgents with an opportunity to plant a bomb.

The vast number of shell casings made it harder to detect IEDs - though the coroner said that a metal detector operator would have to have been ``blind and deaf'' not to detect a device with the high metal content of the bomb that killed L/Cpl Hill.

Jack Davies, a fellow guardsman who suffered spinal injuries and had his left leg amputated after the explosion, is launching legal action against the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Speaking outside the Woking inquest, L/Cpl Hill's parents, of Redhill, Surrey, said the Army failed in its duty of care for their son.

In a statement released jointly with their son's fiancee Anastasia Newman, they said: ``James's death totally shattered our lives and now we have been deeply hurt all over again as we have discovered that his death was needless and entirely preventable.

``It was not just those responsible for planting the IED that caused his death, but a culture of complacency and a disregard for every soldier's safety that reached right up the chain of command.

``Those in charge of his safety owed him a duty of care - a duty, we feel, they totally and utterly failed.

``A proper system of communicating up and down the chain of command could possibly have prevented this tragedy.

``We can only hope that the enormity of what has happened is recognised and this is never allowed to happen again.

``James's life was irreplaceable and he meant the world to us.''

Miss Newman told how she and L/Cpl Hill had been planning for the wedding which would have taken place following his return from Afghanistan, his second tour of duty there.

She said: ``The wedding was planned, the dress was bought.''

Mr Davies said he hoped the MoD would take steps to improve safety on its training grounds.

The 22-year-old, from Loughborough, Leicestershire, said: ``Every soldier accepts that our job is dangerous but the fact Jimmy's death could have been prevented makes me really angry.

``I used to be fit, healthy and liked sports so coming to terms with losing my leg and the career I loved has been devastating.

``I'm now trying to be positive about the future and I'm determined to get my life back on track in memory of the mates I have lost during service.''

The inquest heard that up to 300 service personnel would be trained on the firing range each day.

Mr Travers said this put the range commanders under pressure to have the range cleared and operational for all incoming troops to undergo their Reception Staging Onward Integration (RSOI) acclimatisation training.

He said this clearance using Vallon metal detectors was carried out in as little as 45 minutes when a thorough sweep should have taken four hours.

Mr Travers added that within nine days of L/Cpl Hill's death, the Army had created a new firing range within the secure fence of Camp Bastion.

He said this showed it had been within the powers of the commanding officers to create a safe environment for the training to be carried out.

The local residents who arrived at the firing range after each session scavenging for spent ammunition cases to sell as scrap metal made it a ``vulnerable target'', the inquest heard.

The hearing was also told that the quantity of discarded cases rose exponentially as the training days continued, making the job harder for the Vallon handlers to differentiate between cases and IEDs.

But Mr Travers added: ``I find that the metal content of the IED which killed L/Cpl Hill would have been such that the Vallon operator would have been blind and deaf not to have registered it.

``The register would have gone off the scale and there would have been a loud double tone that the handler would definitely have heard.''

In his conclusion, he said: ``Concerns relating to the range team's ability to clear the range to the safest possible level in the circumstances prevailing at the time were brought to the attention of the chain of command at Camp Bastion by the range conducting officer.

``It is not clear what action, if any, was taken by the chain of command as a result of those concerns.

``Immediately after James Hill's death substantial changes were made to the firing ranges and the manner in which they were protected and in which the training was done.

``Those changes reduced the risk from IED placement to the safest possible level in the circumstances prevailing at that time.

``It was within the scope of the powers of the military authorities to have taken those measures prior to James Hill's death.''

The coroner made a series of recommendations to the MoD to prevent a similar tragedy.

These were to take full account of the risk to soldiers when placing a firing range and ensuring Vallon operators were given the correct training with an instructor included in all units.

His final recommendation was that the MoD ``should consider how concerns can be communicated effectively through the chain of command''.

Recording a verdict that L/Cpl Hill was unlawfully killed whilst on active service in Afghanistan, Mr Travers passed on his condolences to the soldier's family who were present for the hearing.

Colour Sergeant Ryan Robinson, who was in charge of the firing range, told the inquest he raised concerns about the security of the area repeatedly, and when he raised the issue again three days before L/Cpl Hill died, he was told he was ``over-reacting''.

An MoD spokesman said: ``As a result of this tragic incident, immediate steps were taken to prevent any further risk from IEDs on the range, including additional force protection.

``Since 2010, ranges have been located within the expanded perimeter of Camp Bastion and stringent checks are conducted regularly to ensure that the ranges are being used as safely as possible.''