Bullying was not institutionalised at Deepcut barracks, a senior officer has told an inquest into the death of a recruit who was found with gunshot injuries.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Gascoigne, a major at the time, was the officer commanding B Squadron at the Surrey base when Private Sean Benton died in June 1995.
A fresh inquest into the death of the 20-year-old at Woking Coroner’s Court has heard claims of bullying at the barracks, with allegations made against two of his instructors – Sergeant Andrew Gavaghan and Corporal Martin Holder.
Lt Col Gascoigne told the inquest on Wednesday his non-commissioned officers and officers “were very well aware” what would happen if he found out they had overstepped the mark when it came to the mistreatment of recruits.
“Even now I do not believe there was institutionalised bullying at Deepcut,” Lt Col Gascoigne said.
“If it was endemic, I would have certainly found out about it because it would have been obvious in some way.”
He told the court he accepts that there are “reports now from an awful lot of people” regarding incidents that happened at the barracks, where “people had overstepped the line”.
Telling the inquest he would have “immediately jumped on it” if he had known that was happening, Lt Col Gascoigne added: “It should not have happened.”
Pte Benton was found with five bullets in his chest in June 1995, shortly after he had been told he was to be discharged from the Army.
He was the first of four young soldiers to die of gunshot wounds at the Surrey barracks between 1995 and 2002.
His family have campaigned for years for a full investigation into his death amid allegations he suffered prolonged physical and psychological bullying.
The first hearing came back with a verdict of suicide in 1995, even though no evidence was given about his experiences at Deepcut.
Describing Sgt Gavaghan as “trusted”, Lt Col Gascogne said he was someone he dealt with regularly and knew well – revealing he was a primary focus for male welfare within the squadron.
When quizzed by Paul Greaney QC, representing the Benton family, on whether the behaviour of Sgt Gavaghan was a “big problem”, Lt Col Gascoigne said he “would’ve know something about it” if this was the case.
“At no time did I see Sgt Gavaghan mistreat trainees,” he told the inquest, denying he was “blind to what was happening”.
Lt Col Gascoigne also told the inquest that Pte Benton “never mentioned any bullying” and “never mentioned any harassment”.
When pressed on the volume of accounts of bullying and harassment and why it had not come to his attention, he said: “Without doubt they knew what would happen to them if I found out.”
With weekly meetings at which welfare issues of those in the squadron were raised, Lt Col Gascoigne told the court: “We discussed his (Pte Benton’s) case more than anyone else’s in my two years.”
Lt Col Gascoigne said the welfare of the recruits and those in his command is his highest priority, adding that “it was then and it is now”.
Following an incident when Pte Benton kicked a window in, Lt Col Gascoigne said: “I remember having him in and speaking to him and telling him it was serious.”
Revealing how Pte Benton was “very apologetic”, he added: “It was very, very clear he wanted to stay in the Army and he said he did not have anywhere to go – ‘please, please do not kick me out’.”
Having previously spoken to Pte Benton on several occasions, including during his weekly Friday afternoon run, which the entire squadron had to join him on, he described feeling a “spark of hope” for the young recruit.
Offering him a last chance, in March 1995 he put Pte Benton on a three-month warning order and explained that “any messing up” would mean an immediate discharge.
He was later discharged following an incident at a pub.
“He knew it was coming and resigned himself to the fact that it was coming,” the officer said of the meeting in which he was formally told, adding that the response from Pte Benton was “fairly muted”.
Lt Col Gascoigne said he was concerned about the response the decision would have on Pte Benton, adding: “I knew full well we would have a very, very upset soldier on our hands and as a result we needed to take a few extra precautions.”
Sgt Gavaghan, who was on guard that night, was tasked with looking after him, and Lt Col Gascoigne added: “Whilst I did not think for one minute he would commit suicide, I was aware he might get himself in trouble.”
When questioned by Mr Greaney during cross examination, Lt Col Gascoigne agreed it would have been critical Pte Benton did not have access to a weapon.
The hearing will continue at 9am on Thursday.