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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 04:23 GMT
Tragic journey of three fathers
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

Reg Keys
Reg Keys was driven to stand against Tony Blair at the election

The inquest in Oxford for the six Royal Military Police soldiers who died in a police station in Majar al-Kabir will re-open one of the British Army's bloodiest episodes in recent years.

John Miller, Mike Aston and Reg Keys are three fathers united by the brutal deaths of their sons in Iraq.

The killing of Sgt Simon Hamilton-Jewell, Cpl Russell Aston, Cpl Paul Long, Cpl Simon Miller, L/Cpl Benjamin Hyde and L/Cpl Thomas Keys in June 2003 was the biggest loss of life in a clash between British ground forces and Iraqi fighters.

Holding only 50 rounds of ammunition each, the men faced impossible odds as a mob of Iraqis, hundreds strong, stormed the police station they had been posted to.

A Ministry of Defence board of inquiry said in November 2004 that although there had been "poor" communication in the area at the time, and the men should have had more ammunition, their deaths had not been preventable.

Sifting statements

Mr Miller, Mr Aston, and Mr Keys cannot accept this version of events, and have been fighting for nearly three years to find out exactly what happened to their sons.

They and other relatives of the dead men have been driven to become investigators, sifting through witness statements and becoming experts on military procedure.

One relative has even made the dangerous journey to Iraq to obtain a key document.

And the psychological impact has been huge.

Mr Miller, himself a former soldier, said: "What we have never had through all of this is any closure, any line drawn under it. This has just gone on and on, a living nightmare. You will never come to terms with things, you have to learn how to live with it."

From top left: Sergeant Simon Alexander Hamilton-Jewell; Corporal Russell Aston; Corporal Paul Graham Long; Corporal Simon Miller; Lance-Corporal Benjamin Hyde; Lance-Corporal Thomas Keys.
The MoD maintains the men's deaths were not preventable

Mr Miller's wife Marilyn tried to kill herself weeks after her son's death, and he eventually lost his job.

"The pressure, the life change that has happened to us has been unimaginable.

"I'm sitting in Simon's room. I've my computer desk in here, sat amongst his medals and his photographs and his trophies. This is my life. I can't see it changing even when we get closure.

"I don't think we will ever get accountability. This is a burden we will have to live with."

Mr Keys, whose experiences led him to stand against Tony Blair at the last election, has also been hit hard.

"For the three of us, it has been a wearing down process over the last two years. It grinds one down. At times you think you can't keep going on with this, but suddenly you turn up a piece of information and say you have to do it for your son.

"It affects your health, both mental and physically. My wife is virtually agoraphobic, will hardly go out of the house, can't bear to go to the grave, to see Tom's name carved on stone.

"I sometimes wish my son had been killed in a simple car accident."

Search anger

The three fathers dispute the MoD's description of the town of Majar al-Kabir as "relatively benign".

A group of Paras had been stoned by a mob only two days before. And rancour over searches for weapons had forced a British commanding officer to negotiate with local leaders.

The Red Caps were killed immediately after further clashes with locals had forced the rescue of a group of Paras.

There was a lack of duty of care, a cavalier attitude to their safety
Reg Keys

Mr Miller continues: "There were never enough men to start with in Maysan province to effect any substantial difference in the area.

"You had 25 military police personnel, eight of them women who couldn't patrol, with an area of responsibility the size of Wales.

"It was awash with AK-47s and larger calibre weapons. It was a severe and troubled area that Saddam Hussein couldn't control."

The board of inquiry into the men's deaths said that a lack of equipment was not the decisive factor. But there is outrage amongst the fathers over the "descaling", the removal of equipment after hostilities were officially declared over with the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"They had smoke grenades, phosphorus grenades, morphine syringes taken away.

"All they were given back was 50 rounds and sent to a police station where only two days before Paras had to be rescued."

'National disgrace'

The board of inquiry said the men should have been told that they could have 150 rounds of ammunition.

Mr Aston is appalled that his son never had a chance.

"They had 300 bullets in total and you have got 600 Iraqis coming at you. It is a complete cock-up and a national disgrace."

Mr Keys adds: "What the family are looking for is to find out why six men found themselves in a police station, without communications and having been descaled, in a hostile town and with no assistance.

Some of the explanation that has been put forward you could drive a coach and horses through it - it has been a cover-up from start to finish
Mike Aston

"There was a lack of duty of care, a cavalier attitude to their safety.

"There needs to be a further, independent inquiry into how those men were killed. The Army has investigated itself behind locked doors. The families had no representation."

One of the central issues is the men's inability to call for help.

They did not have an "iridium" satellite phone, which all patrols were supposed to take with them. The MoD's position is that enough phones were available for every unit, but the families say the Royal Military Police operated under the understanding that they were not to take them out.

The Paras battling in a firefight with locals were unaware of the presence of their colleagues at the nearby police station.

Vanished unit

For the board of inquiry, the Red Caps had booked out in a way that did not make their presence in the town clear to those controlling operations.

But Mr Miller is not convinced.

"Nobody even tried to find those guys. They were not even in anybody's thinking, planning or care.

"The Army advertise themselves as being investors in people. Where was the investment in my son?"

We have become very, very close friends, we understand each other, we cry on the phone to each other every day
John Miller

Mr Keys says the men were at a scheduled meeting at the police station to discuss refurbishment. The board of inquiry contradicted this, saying the men were investigating the stoning of the Paras two days before.

Mr Keys is immensely proud of his son, originally a Para, who had seen action in an infamous rescue in Sierra Leone and also served in Northern Ireland.

"These men died bravely, facing their killers."

Mr Aston feels the same way.

"We want to protect the good name of the boys, who didn't surrender.

"What we want, me, John and Reg, is knowing the truth, why [the commanders] made the decisions on the day.

"Some of the explanation that has been put forward, you could drive a coach and horses through it - it has been a cover-up from start to finish."

Poignant quest

The three men have been brought together by an awful episode, but they have a bond created by their shared search for the truth.

"We have become very, very close friends, we understand each other, we cry on the phone to each other every day," Mr Miller confides.

He says his quest is made more poignant by the fact his other son, John, is still in the Royal Military Police.

"It has taken its toll on our John, he joined the military police on the back of Simon.

"I'm also doing this for John and every other soldier."

All three fathers know eventually their quest for the truth will have to draw to a close.

Mr Keys admits: "That day will have to come. When I've done all I can, can go no further, at last I can walk down the path to my son's grave and hold my head high, and say I did all I could. But I will never come to terms with it."


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