Elite soldier alone before suicide, inquest hears

A special forces soldier who developed PTSD across multiple traumatic tours in Afghanistan was alone the weekend he took his own life, despite having been placed on effective suicide watch just a week earlier, an inquest has heard.

Corporal Ian Turner died by suicide at age 35 on July 15, 2017, at his Waterloo home, leaving behind a number of notes.

“Nobody can help me. I am too far gone. Please just let me go. I have suffered enough,” one read.

A doctor had ordered “almost 24-hour supervision” for the at-risk soldier just over a week earlier, but the extreme measure only lasted the weekend, his welfare officer told the NSW Coroner’s Court on Monday.

Corporal Turner had been a member of the elite 2nd Commando Regiment and gone on seven deployments across his 17-year military career including four tours in Afghanistan, two in Iraq and one in East Timor.

An inquest before Magistrate Harriet Grahame heard in 2020 that his suicide came in the context of longstanding PTSD and after a demotion and work transfer that left him feeling isolated and “betrayed”.

His wife told the inquest she experienced domestic violence at the soldier’s hands and watched him fall into a spiral of alcohol and drug abuse and ill mental health following his Afghanistan tours.

On Monday, the inquest heard that following suicide attempts in March and April of 2017, Corporal Turner was managed by the High Performance Wing (HPW), where soldiers who had suffered physical or psychological injuries were assisted to either return to work or transition to the civilian world.

Sergeant Michael Cardinaels, who ran the HPW at the time and was Corporal Turner’s welfare officer, said a doctor had ordered what was effectively round-the-clock supervision of the corporal on Friday July 7.

“Just for that weekend period, from memory,” he said.

But according to Sergeant Cardinaels there was “no such plan” for a group of soldiers keeping watch, or “picket”, the next weekend when he took his own life.

“I don’t know (why there wasn’t), you’d have to ask the clinicians, I guess,” he said.

He told the court he would “always” keep in contact with Corporal Turner on the weekends, but “couldn’t be with him all the time” and that the corporal often saw friends.

Under questioning from a lawyer for Corporal Turner’s parents, Sergeant Cardinaels said it was not the case the corporal’s close friends were on a training exercise that weekend, nor that a soldier assigned to keep an eye on him was in hospital with medical issues of his own.

“The reason he didn’t have a picket on the weekend he died was because there wasn’t a stipulation he have one,” he said.

The sergeant said he believed Corporal Turner’s self-identity was “to some degree” wrapped up in being a commando.

The HPW had tried to expose him to things outside of being a soldier — such as canoe paddling, trout fishing in Tasmania and working at the gym — with mixed results, he told the inquest.

Corporal Turner’s wife has previously told the inquest his behaviour first changed after tours in 2007 and 2009, with a sharp uptick in excessive drinking and violence after a 2013 deployment.

In June 2014, Corporal Turner spent time in a psychiatric hospital and was also the subject of an apprehended violence order taken out by Ms Turner, who wrote to the defence force expressing her worries.

Despite this, her husband was deployed to Iraq in 2015 and again in 2016 after initially being denied and then granted medical clearance.

The couple were separated at the time he died.

Corporal Turner was demoted a rank in August 2016 after a prank involving a playing card with a picture of a naked man on it, the inquest has heard.

In January 2017, he was transferred to a different company, which he believed was further punishment for the practical joke.

He told a chaplain he was “deeply hurt that he was pulled out of his company because that was his support group”.

In the days before his death, a doctor recommended medical discharge from the defence force and a psychologist reported Corporal Turner wanted this to happen.

Sergeant Cardinaels said Corporal Turner had accepted he “had to move on and do something else” and being a commando was “just not healthy for him anymore”.

He said based on his discussions with the soldier, the things playing on his mind at the time he died were his prolonged mental health and substance abuse issues, relationship problems — he was also separated from his then-girlfriend at the time — and ongoing difficulties at work.

“It all adds up,” the sergeant said.

The inquest continues.

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