By Emily Ford & PA Media
The Army missed opportunities to prevent the suicide of a “positive and bubbly” officer cadet, a coroner has concluded.
Olivia Perks, 21, was found hanged in her room at Sandhurst military academy in Berkshire on 6 February 2019.
Speaking after the inquest, her mother said it had been a “horrific, dreadful journey” discovering the failures in Army welfare support for her daughter.
The Army said it was “deeply sorry” for its “systemic and individual failings”.
The inquest at Reading Town Hall was told Ms Perks felt an “overwhelming sense of embarrassment” after spending the night in an officer’s room five days before her death.
She had been attending the Falklands Ball and stayed with Colour Sgt Griffith, who was in charge of Ms Perks’ day-to-day training and welfare.
Both denied any sexual activity, with Ms Perks claiming the colour sergeant had invited her in out of concern for her welfare and she had only used the room for sleep.
The next morning, when Ms Perks was seen leaving his room in her ball gown, she was told “my office now” by the regimental sergeant major, the inquest heard.
She then missed a parade and had to walk past colleagues in her outfit from the night before.
A friend told the coroner’s court Ms Perks had felt “under the microscope” and like she was “on trial” as Sandhurst academy leaders questioned her about the incident and rumours about it spread on WhatsApp.
The coroner said the chain of command missed an opportunity to get Ms Perks seen by a doctor after that night.
The inquest, which took place over 16 days, heard Ms Perks fell victim to a “complete breakdown in welfare support” during her time at the academy.
She previously attempted to end her life during a visit to the Royal Engineers in Dorset the summer before, but was deemed at “low risk” of trying again.
Ms Perks was back on duty two days later and warned she risked losing her place at the academy if she engaged in similar behaviour again.
Recording a conclusion of suicide, coroner Alison McCormick said: “The risks to Olivia were not managed in accordance with the Army policy for the risk management of vulnerable people.
“There was a missed opportunity by the chain of command to recognise the risk which the stress of her situation (after the Falklands Ball) posed to Olivia and a medical assessment should have been, but was not, requested.
“It is not possible to know what the outcome would have been had a medical assessment taken place, but it is possible that measures would have been put in place which could have prevented Olivia’s death.”
The court heard Ms Perks was interviewed after her first suicide attempt and the reason for the interview was recorded as “inappropriate behaviour” with “the catalyst being excessive alcohol”.
But counsel to the coroner Bridget Dolan KC said Ms Perks appeared to be being told to sign a letter that makes clear “deliberate self-harming is inappropriate behaviour”.
None of the chain of command at Sandhurst were shown the report following the interview and only a welfare officer and commander who had left the academy had access to it.
Following the inquest, solicitor Ahmed Al-Nahhas from law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp read out a statement on behalf of Ms Perks’ mother Louise Townsend.
He said: “Hearing the evidence from the court has been so hard – from fellow cadets, to the failures of welfare support.
“Learning that it could have been avoided with the right help, the fact that she may well have been with us now – I don’t know that she was safeguarded adequately and that is so hard to comprehend.”
Ms Perks was selected for officer training in 2018. She was the youngest of 180 cadets and was held in high regard.
She was in the last term of a 44-week course.
Her mother explained they had reservations about Ms Perks joining as they were not a military family.
She said: “She wanted to do this from the age of 14, worked tirelessly towards it – it was her dream. We were absolutely incredibly proud of how hard she’d worked.
“I remember thinking: ‘Well, for 44 weeks you will be saying you’ll be tired, you’re exhausted, you’ll be put through the motions, you may feel you don’t want to pursue this – but you will be safe’.
“So it’s been it’s been horrific. A dreadful journey that we’ve been on for the past years, discovering that things weren’t as they should have been.”
The inquest heard Sandhurst academy had been rated as outstanding by education watchdog Ofsted.
However, the coroner was also told it had only one welfare officer for 2,500 people.
Lt Col Rupert Whitelegge, who was commander of the academy’s Old College at the time, told the inquest this level of support was “irresponsible”.
Colonel Robert Manuel, president of the internal inquiry into Ms Perks’ death, told the court he had found a complete breakdown in welfare support at Sandhurst.
In a statement after the inquest, Army spokesman Maj Gen Zac Stenning, said: “We are deeply sorry for the systemic and individual failings within the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst which led to the tragic death of Olivia Perks.
“Much more should and could have been done to support her. As an organisation we should have been better.”
Maj Gen Stenning added the inquest had been “extremely difficult for all” and described Ms Perks as “a young woman full of sparkling promise”.
He continued: “We are committed to being better and will consider all of the coroner’s findings to ensure we learn any further lessons to provide the best possible leadership and care for our soldiers, officers and trainees.
“This includes zero tolerance of the utterly unacceptable behaviours exposed by the Service Inquiry and this inquest.”
Maj Gen Stenning confirmed officer cadets attending Sandhurst “now experience vastly improved supervisory care on their journey to become future leaders.
“We owe this to Olivia and our people,” he added.
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