THE MOTHER of an Eastbourne soldier killed in Afghanistan by a British sniper has criticised the chain of command and communication which led to her son being shot dead.
Lance Corporal Michael Pritchard was just 22 when he was mistaken for a Taliban bomber and fired upon from an observation post around 700 metres.
An inquest into his death held locally over the last fortnight revealed a string of failures in the run-up to his 2009 shooting and found that his death should have been easily avoidable.
Recording a verdict of accidental death, coroner Alan Craze said, “This was fundamentally an accident, albeit an avoidable one.”
LCpl Pritchard, on his first tour of Afghanistan, was stationed on the roof of a look-out post which had been recently established so troops could keep an eye out for insurgents planting home-made bombs along a blindspot of a busy road.
He was killed by a single bullet fired by a Lance Corporal Malcolm Graham, of the Royal Scots Borderers, the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, after the sniper wrongly identified him as the enemy.
However, the inquest heard that a breakdown in communications were responsible for LCpl Graham not being stopped from firing on friendly forces despite a restricted fire line being in place to prevent such tragic accidents.
There were also radio warnings sent through to say bullets were landing near LCpl Pritchard’s location which apparently did not reach the people in command.
Mr Craze said the tragedy happened because of the “failure of organisational systems put in place to stop blue-on-blue” incidents as well as poor radio communications, a lack of understanding as to where the restricted fire line was and inadequate briefings about the whereabouts of the observation post’s exact location.
It also emerged that LCpl Graham had not been given permission to fire the fatal shot but had followed the Army’s strict rules of engagement, allowing him to use his own judgement.
“He had also twice been told he could fire at the figure he believed was a bomber.
Mr Craze added, “There was an overriding sense that they [the troops] had arrived in a hornets’ nest in a war zone and that they had to win.
“So although there was no gung-ho or snap happy attitude they were there to engage insurgents.”
Speaking on the steps of Eastbourne Town Hall, LCpl Pritchard’s mother, Helen Perry, said the family had found it hard to understand how her son could be shot by a British sniper, over a restricted firing line, while standing on the roof of an observation post and having radioed warnings.
She said, “During the course of this inquest we have heard that a series of errors relating to command and control, communication and identification resulted in Michael’s death.
“Speculation and assumption caused an initial incorrect identification of British soldiers as insurgents and nobody in command took any action to rectify the situation and subsequently nobody has taken any responsibility for Michael’s death.
“We recognise that a number of people were involved in this incident but there was an onus on those higher in the chain of command to take control, rectify the situation and save Michael’s life.
“After reading all the evidence and sitting through the inquest we remain convinced that the consequences of all of the above were tragically all too predictable.
“Michael was an honourable and honest young man and he stood firmly by what was right but would never bear a grudge.
“Therefore I think it only fitting that we have finally heard evidence from those responsible for his death.
“Michael deserves nothing less.
“My precious son’s life and very promising career was cut tragically and cruelly short in the most unexpected of circumstances.
“Michael sadly no longer has a voice and so it is up to us, his family, to ensure that he has one and to do all we can to avoid a similar repetition of such an event.
“The grief we feel at the loss of our beautiful boy is all too much to bear and we hope that this shocking chain of events never happens to another soldier, another family.
“Michael is missed so very much and will be carry him forever in our hearts.”