A FATHER wants the Ministry of Defence to be prosecuted following the “preventable" death of his soldier son during a fitness test in Powys.

An experienced soldier who was physically fit, 26-year-old Corporal Josh Hoole suffered a fatal collapse while taking part in an annual fitness test (AFT) in the Brecon Beacons, conducted over eight miles in July 2016 on a day of extreme heat.

The tragedy bore striking similarities to one in 2013, when three soldiers died from heat illness during a training exercise in the same area.

It also had similarities to a tragedy in 2015 when a solider died during a fitness test in Germany.

MoD officials initially blamed Cpl Hoole's death on Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS), effectively rejecting any link with the day’s extreme heat.

The ill-fated test, on July 19, 2016, was held on the hottest day of that year, with the temperature in Wales already above 20C by the time it began at 7am.

Despite this, Cpl Hoole and the other soldiers involved were sent on the eight-mile route march, each carrying 25kg of kit. His subsequent collapse as he neared the end of the course was entirely preventable, says Cpl Hoole’s father Phillip, 61.

He wants the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to take forward a prosecution of the MoD for corporate manslaughter. Mr Hoole has spent last six years investigating the tragedy and is convinced MoD officials failed to safeguard his son, with fatal consequences.

The News & Star in Carlisle - a newspaper that is part of the same group as the County Times - has seen legal documents in which a senior government lawyer admits that, on the day Cpl Hoole died, “there was a catalogue of failures”.

In the same email, the lawyer, who advises the Secretary of State for Defence, states that those failures “amounted to a failure to ensure a safe system of training and which put soldiers at risk of injury from heat illness.”

The email adds: “There was clear negligence.”

Mr Hoole’s campaign for justice was bolstered in 2019 by a damning coroner’s report which identified “very serious failings” and concluded the AFT was unsafe. Louise Hunt suggested that the Army failed to learn vital lessons from the 2013 tragedy, when three soldiers suffered fatal heat illness during an SAS trial.

She issued a so-called “Regulation 28 Report to Prevent Future Deaths.”

That report says the staff who ran the AFT in 2016 were unaware of official guidance designed to prevent heat-related illness or collapse. They failed to use a trusted risk assessment system called Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT).

County Times: Phillip Hoole says he wants to see this human rights law applied so his son can get justice.Phillip Hoole says he wants to see this human rights law applied so his son can get justice. (Image: Contributed)

This accurately predicts the safe temperature limits and timescales within which people can exert themselves.

In her ruling, the coroner stated: “The AFT should not have gone ahead as the WBGT was above the acceptable limit at 6.45am and was inevitably going to be above the WBGT limit throughout the AFT.

“Josh would not have died when he did, had the AFT not gone ahead as the triggers for his death would not have occurred.”

Even if those in charge of the AFT had used the temperature kit provided, it would have given an inaccurate reading below the actual temperature because the equipment was not correctly positioned, the inquest heard.

The coroner also highlighted how senior staff showed a “lack of awareness” of heat illness and how to recognise it (outlined in government guidance, known as JSP539).

This was a “very serious failing,” said the coroner, concluding the that risk assessments used were “not fit for purpose.”

The AFT organisers did not recognise why other students dropped out of the test as the heat overwhelmed them. If they had, said the coroner, the test would have been stopped and Cpl Hoole would not have died.

When he took the course, Cpl Hoole was preparing for a Platoon Sergeants Battle Course. The Rifles Training Team staff who ran the AFT were aware that the day was going to be the hottest of the year, said the ruling.

After waking at 4am, the students travelled to Dering Lines Barracks in Brecon at 6.30am. Official guidance states that AFTs should not go ahead when the temperature is above 20C but the test organisers were unaware of this.

“They did not understand the importance of undertaking a WBGT before the AFT despite it being clearly stated in the risk assessment,” said the coroner.

Nor did they heed warning signs that students were suffering from the heat.

During a two-mile uphill section of the course, eight dropped out. Just before 8am, one student collapsed into a hedge, so confused he could not recognise his friend.

He and fellow students displayed classic signs of “exertional heat illness”. A short time later, three more students dropped out. One complained of dizziness.

Six miles into the course, yet another soldier collapsed, again showing clear signs of heat illness – confusion, profuse sweating, and a feeling of being unwell. Yet a training leader failed to recognise the symptoms, blaming an ankle injury.

A medic’s view that the soldier had heat illness was not passed on to test leaders. In total, 18 of the 41 soldiers taking part dropped out. Cpl Hoole collapsed at 8.52am, just 400 yards from the end of the course.

Other students reported that just before his collapse, he suffered hyperventilation, cramps, fatigue, confusion and irritability, all clear signs of exertional heat illness. Despite efforts to save him, he was declared dead at 9.30am.

In her ruling, the coroner noted the death of the three soldiers from heat while training at Brecon Beacons in 2013, the tragedy triggering a coroner’s report to prevent future death which was sent to the Secretary of State for Defence in 2015.

That report noted how:

  • Commanding officers were unaware of official guidance on preventing heat illness as stated in JSP539.
  • They were not trained on completing risk assessments.
  • Systems for reporting heat illness were disjointed.
  • And there was no system in place to ensure WBGT readings were taken before training exercises were started.

Ms Hunt stated: “Despite a response confirming these issues would be rectified, this report to prevent future deaths raises concerns about the same and additional issues.

"There is a serious concern that lessons have not been learned from past tragedies and there appears to be a failure to address serious safety concerns on the part of the MoD.”

Phillip Hoole [below], himself a former soldier who served for 24 years, now believes the only way to get justice for his son is through a prosecution for corporate manslaughter.County Times:

“When he took the AFT in 2016, Josh had been in the Army for nine years and he was physically fit,” said Philip. “He had a lot of leadership qualities and emotional intelligence.

"People wanted to emulate hm.

“He went into 1 Rifles, which is based at Chepstow. He did two tours of Afghanistan and one of Iraq, and one of Mali. So he was used to working in harsh climates and never had problems before.

“He could easily have achieved the rank of regimental sergeant major.

“He had a nice soul.”

Mr Hoole said he wants the MoD to respond to the circumstances surrounding his son’s death with “moral courage” and “honesty”, values which he feels have thus far not been evident in official responses to the tragedy.

He has carried out meticulous research into the legal implications of what happened and passed a file of evidence to police. Before this, in response to Mr Hoole’s research, the MoD accepted breaching Josh’s “right to life”.

Mr Hoole said: “Basically, on the day Josh died, the AFT should not have started because it was too hot. That was obvious before it began and at several points during the test. I’ve sent the relevant details to the police on North Wales a year ago.

"Those documents explained everything.

“So why, with such clear evidence, is it taking so long to reach a decision on a charge?”

Asked what he wants to achieve, Mr Hoole said: “I want the MoD to be held accountable in court and I want that so it will force a cultural change – a change in the system that means this will never happen again.

“There are a lot more soldiers whose careers have been damaged, some of them now medically discharged.”

He said: “If the CPS does not prosecute, I will pursue a private prosecution.”

Part of Mr Hoole’s cynicism about the Army’s handling of what happened, he said, is the 2016 "service inquiry report" that concluded his son died from SADS.

That conclusion, he said, resulted from MoD officials providing the pathologist involved with what was “partial” information, excluding clear evidence that Cpl Hoole had shown classic “exertional heat illness” symptoms.

Those symptoms included fatigue, cramps, confusion, irritability and abnormal breathing described as “panting.”  In the light of that evidence, Mr Hoole managed to secure a full inquest, which was held in late 2019.

The coroner then recorded a new cause of death, attributing the death to “high cardiovascular workload due to exercise and heat stress”. A second pathologist, armed with more details, said Cpl Hoole had no heart abnormalities.

Indeed, his fellow soldiers remarked that he appeared fitter than most of his physical training instructors. Philip Hoole also highlighted a lack of cold water during the AFT and an abnormally high drop-out rate – 39 per cent, compared the average 3 per cent.

Philip said: “I believe preventable deaths have occurred, and what happened to my son was one of them. It’s a matter of public interest for a test case to be brought. The evidence I have presented is just as applicable to earlier deaths.”County Times:

He accused officials involved in the initial service inquiry report - now removed from the MoD website - of presiding over a “whitewash”.

Mr Hoole added: “When I believed Josh died because of SADS, I blamed myself, thinking I’d passed on a genetic condition which had killed him. We had family members tested, including Josh’s brother, who is in the military.

“We were given the all-clear.

“At first, the MoD did not reveal that Josh showed symptoms of exertional heat illness. They said everything was done according to official policy and that Josh had just basically collapsed and suddenly died.

“They’ve now accepted they breached his right to life and that there was negligence. It’s my view that, given the previous deaths, the previous preventing future deaths report, and the failures in Josh’s case, that this was gross negligence.

“The WBGT system sets out the limits within which the human body can function. The AFT conducted that day in Wales was operated outside those limits.”

A Ministry of Defence Spokesperson said: “Our thoughts remain with Corporal Hoole’s family and friends.

“Lessons were identified from this tragic incident, and we regularly review our policy on heat illness to minimise the risk to personnel while on exercises.”

In a statement, the MoD said it was identifying heat illness cases more effectively because reporting and risk awareness is improving in the Armed Forces.

Officials are also working with serving personnel and the families of the soldiers who lost their lives, and the MoD has introduced "mandatory training" for all service personnel, new heat illness protocols, and there has been consultation with subject matter experts to develop new technology such as wearable temperature and heart rate monitoring equipment.

The News & Star understands the police investigation into Cpl Hoole's death is ongoing.

Once that is complete a file will be passed to the CPS so that senior lawyers can make a charging decision.

Dyfed-Powys Police were invited to comment but at the time of going to press the force had not provided a statement.