While his peers from St Augustine’s Catholic school were this month contemplating university careers or first jobs, Jason Chelsea was preoccupied with a different future: his first tour of duty in Iraq.
The 19-year-old infantryman, from Wigan, Greater Manchester, was tormented by concern about what awaited him when the King’s Lancaster Regiment reached Iraq, where 115 British soldiers have been killed since 2003.
He had even told his parents that he had been warned by his commanders that he could be ordered to fire on child suicide bombers.
It was a fear that he never confronted. Within 48 hours of confessing his concerns to his family, Pte Chelsea was dead after taking an overdose of painkillers and slashing his wrists.
On his death bed, he told his mother, Kerry: “I can’t go out there and shoot at young children. I just can’t go to Iraq. I don’t care what side they are on. I can’t do it.”
Today, mourners including comrades from his unit will attend Pte Chelsea’s funeral, wearing the colours of his two favourite football teams, Chelsea and Wigan. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is to begin an investigation into his death, including allegations that the teenager was bullied. In a suicide note, the young soldier had said that he was “just a waste”.
His parents said yesterday that their son’s ordeal had convinced them of the need for an urgent review of the pre-deployment training given to British soldiers bound for Iraq.
Tony Chelsea, 58, a factory production supervisor, said: “My son was made very, very lonely by what was happening to him. He was very sad inside and he bottled up what was causing it. It was only after the overdose that he told us about his fears over what might happen in Iraq.
“In training, they were made to wrestle with dummies. Jason said they were also told they might have to fight kids and that they might have to shoot them because they were carrying suicide bombs. He said the policy [where there was a suspected suicide bomber] was to shoot first and ask questions later.”
His mother added: “Jason said that during the training for Iraq he had been told that children as young as two carry bombs and the time may come when he would have to shoot one to save himself and his friends. I think they need to think again about the training they give to young soldiers before Iraq.”
It is understood guidelines on training for British troops heading for Iraq offer no warning on child suicide bombers. But defence sources confirmed that the details of the advice given to soldiers are decided by each regiment. There have been no known cases of suicide attacks in Iraq committed by young children.
The death of Pte Chelsea, who had served in Germany and Cyprus, will renew concern about the psychological pressures faced by British troops as they deal with deployment to Iraq. Four days before the infantryman attempted to take his life, the MoD released figures showing that 1,541 soldiers who served in Iraq are suffering from psychiatric illness. Last year, 727 cases were recorded, amounting to nearly 10 per cent of the British deployment. Special units have now been set up in the country to help soldiers deal with combat stress. While services were also available in Britain to Pte Chelsea to discuss his concerns within the Army, it seems he felt unable to disclose them.
He had joined the Army at 16 after a visit to his school, St Augustine’s, telling his family the Army was to be his life. He was at home on leave when his fears came to a head this month.
After watching a football match on the night of 10 August, he calmly wrote the suicide note, telling his father it was a letter to a relative, took 60 painkillers then slashed his wrists. As he lay bleeding, the soldier dialled 999, telling the operator: “I have done something stupid.”
In normal circumstances, Pte Chelsea, who suffered from dyslexia, may have recovered from his injuries. But when doctors began tests to assess the damage caused to his liver by the drugs, it was found that the organ had been irreparably damaged by alcohol. His family were told his liver was similar to that of someone who had been an alcoholic for 20 years and he would not survive a transplant. He died on 14 August at St James’s Hospital in Leeds after his family gave consent for his other organs to be used for transplants.
His father said he believed t he reasons behind his son’s drinking had provoked a previous suicide attempt in 2004, when he cut his wrists in his barracks. After this incident, Pte Chelsea was treated by an Army psychiatrist which the family said had restored his confidence.
Mr Chelsea said: “My son started drinking 18 months ago. He destroyed his liver in less than a year and a half. I believe that is because he was being bullied again. He did not want to make anything of it. He was in the Army, he knew he had to be tough. But it only takes a few words. He said he would hear comments aimed at him because of his dyslexia. He was told he would get his colleagues killed because he was stupid.
“I support the British Army and what it does. But I would like to stand before my son’s unit with a picture of him in uniform and ask those who made these comments to him time after time to think about the effect they had.”
The young soldier’s despair was displayed in the note he wrote to his parents before his overdose. He said: “Really sorry, mum and dad. I’m just no good for you. I have got to finish it. I am just a waste.”
The MoD said it was “greatly saddened” by the death but the details of his treatment remained the subject of an inquiry. A spokesman said: “We send our heartfelt sympathies to the family of Pte Chelsea. It is our intention to convene a board of inquiry which will examine the circumstances around his death.”
Five other suicides since Iraq invasion
* JULY 2004
Pte Gary Boswell, 20, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, hanged himselfnear his home in Milford Haven. He was on leave from Iraq
* 31 OCTOBER 2004
Staff Sgt Denise Rose, 34, who served in the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police, was found dead from a gunshot wound at a British Army base in Basra
* 26 DECEMBER 2004
Sgt Paul Connolly, 33, of the 21st Engineer Regiment of the Royal Engineers was found dead from a gunshot wound at Shaibah Logistic Base, south-west of Basra
* 15 OCTOBER 2005
Capt Ken Masters, 40, of the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police, hanged himself in his office in Basra, just five days before the end of a tour
* 22 MARCH 2006
Cpl Mark Cridge, 25, of 7 Signal Regiment, shot himself at Camp Bastion in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
Independent News and Media Limited