Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has faced calls from a coroner to do more to protect Britain’s troops following the suicide of a special forces veteran.
‘Tortured soul’ Danny Johnston took his own life after he was left ‘destroyed’ by his 14-year Army career, which saw him serve in war zones across the Middle East, Kosovo and Northern Ireland.
The 35-year-old Corporal had been part of the UK’s elite Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), the sister regiment of the famed SAS. Before that he was part of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, Portsmouth’s local infantry unit.
But an inquest revealed how the military offered him no support despite ‘obvious red flags’ about his mental health flaring up, which later led to him being discharged from the army.
The court heard how the experienced soldier had been traumatised by a tour in Afghanistan and was unable to sleep.
Fearing his career would be left in tatters if he spoke out, Mr Johnston broke military rules and started using the prescription drug valium in secret. But he was eventually caught during a random drug test and sacked from the Army, ‘a shame’ his family said he never truly recovered from.
On May 20, 2018, Mr Johnston disappeared from his family home in Bognor Regis, with his body being found on May 23 in Stoughton Woods, near Chichester.
Now James Healey-Pratt, assistant coroner for West Sussex, has vowed to write to Mr Williamson and urge him to improve the support for the nation’s service personnel to stop ‘future deaths’ and ‘tragedies like Danny’.
Speaking at a hearing at West Sussex Coroner’s Court in Crawley on Thursday, he said: ‘Our service personnel need to be looked after and protected to a greater extent than they are.
‘In many ways, Danny’s tragic situation is an example of that. It’s the duty of this court to protect future people from that similar outcome.’
During the inquest, the court heard how Mr Johnston had attempted to take his life in woodland close to his home in Herefordshire exactly a week before he disappeared.
The troubled 35-year-old was caught by police ‘carrying a rope’ after worried friends contacted officers after a post he made on social media.
Following the failed attempt, he went back to his family home in Bognor Regis, where he stayed with his mother, Viv Johnston.
However, Mr Johnston’s sister, Sophie Johnston, told the court her brother was ‘not himself’ and looked ‘haunted’.
She said: “Danny was quite a tortured soul sometimes and he didn’t talk to anybody.
“He was absolutely devastated that he had been discharged from the Army and angry with himself.
“He found it so hard to adjust to normal civilian life. He knew it was all his fault.”
When Mr Johnston disappeared on May 20, a large group of friends, family and fellow veterans — including former members of the SAS — joined the search effort.
The four-day operation saw teams hunting through Queen Elizabeth Country Park, near Portsmouth, and basing themselves at the Army Reserve Centre, in Tudor Crescent.
However, Mr Johnston’s body was found by passers-by in Stoughton Woods, at 11.30am on May 23, 2018. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
A post-mortem examination revealed he had trace levels of ethanol consistent with ‘mild or moderate’ intoxication.
Benzodiazepine was also detected in his blood at ‘therapeutic levels’ consistent with the using of prescription valium, Mr Healey-Pratt said.
The hearing heard evidence from Lieutenant Colonel Chris Rotchell, who was representing the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The army officer said since Mr Johnston’s death, the MoD had introduced new support measures for troops with mental health disorders.
“I joined the military in 1997 and the changes have been staggering from where we were then to where we are now,” he told the court. “But there’s still a huge amount of work to do surrounding the taboos of coming forward [for help].”
Recording a conclusion of suicide, the coroner said the support for Mr Johnston in 2013 ‘wasn’t adequate’, and added: “If a special forces operative has sleeping problems, potentially due to combat tour in Afghanistan, they should feel safe and entitled to seek proper assistance without fear of jeopardising their military career.”
He noted the MoD’s attitudes had changed since Mr Johnston’s discharge but said ‘more’ still needed to be done.
“Danny had been an effective and highly-valued member of his special forces unit the SSR,” he added. “He served his Queen, he served his country, he served his regiment.”