Mark Leader was only six when the Task Force set sail for the
Falklands in 1982. The tales of military courage and derring-do which
filtered back from that distant conflict would inspire him, as would the
dream that one day he might wear the coveted green beret of a Royal
Dedicated: Mark Leader today with his fiancee Jo Snook and their
six-week-old son William. Last week, he, along with Captain Jody
Wheelhouse, was thrown out of the Royal Marines for hitting a suspected
Taliban bomber with a wellington boot
He did make it into the elite force, having
enrolled on the tough Commando selection course even before his 17th
His service would take him all around the world,
from Kosovo to Kuwait, Dungannon to Diego Garcia, but nowhere was more
challenging than Helmand province in Afghanistan, where he served two
And it was there that his 18-year career, during which he reached the
rank of sergeant, would come to an ignominious end, after a moment’s
misjudgment. A hitherto exemplary and unblemished record counted for
nothing, it seemed, when set against a regrettable but relatively minor
assault on an Afghan prisoner.
Last week, Sgt Leader, 34,
along with 45 Commando colleague Captain Jody Wheelhouse, was thrown out
of the Royal Marines for hitting a suspected Taliban bomber with a
wellington boot. Mohammed Ekhlas had earlier been detained by Marines
who spotted four men ‘digging in’ a roadside bomb near a British base in
The court martial heard Leader and Wheelhouse later burst into a
tent where 48-year-old Ekhlas was being held and struck him around the
head with the rubber boot, causing a cut lip, two loosened teeth and
The court rejected Sgt Leader’s defence
(which he still fervently insists is the truth) that he was trying to
stop the man from escaping.
Although Capt Wheelhouse admitted a
charge of causing actual bodily harm, Sgt Leader denied it, saying he
acted in self-defence against a ‘dangerous and violent prisoner’.
Career soldier: Marine
Sergeant Mark Leader pictured on a tour of duty in Afghanistan in
But even if the prosecutors were right and the articulate, quietly
spoken NCO did let his disciplined professionalism slip for an instant
(after three of his colleagues were blown up by roadside IEDs –
improvised explosive devices), the stark contrast in the subsequent
fortunes of the ‘bootneck’ and the bomber seem wholly unjust.
was handed over to the notoriously corrupt Afghan police and released
without charge. Perhaps not surprisingly, he could not be traced when
his testimony was sought for Sgt Leader’s court martial. No one can be
certain, but few doubt that the Afghan would have returned to the
bomb-planting which apparently led to his arrest.
Leader, however, the alleged offence meant an immediate return to the UK
in the most shaming of circumstances. Before the trip home, he was
stripped of his firearm, his uniform and his dignity and returned to
these shores wearing the kind of white paper forensic jumpsuit usually
associated with murderers and terrorists.
During a stressful
year with the case hanging over him, he vacillated between hope and
despair, but only in his darkest moments did he imagine he would be cast
out of the close-knit military family which had embraced him for more
than half his life.
He compared the trauma of his dismissal to
a divorce, but yesterday told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I took a
split-second judgment and, presented with the same circumstances, I’d do
the same again.’
Sitting at home in East Anglia with his
podiatrist fiancee Jo Snook, 39, and their six-week-old son William, he
must now contemplate the grim realities of life on civvy street with no
job and a criminal record. He said: ‘I’ve got to apply for Jobseeker’s
Allowance and get my CV together, but all the kind of security jobs
which I might have considered are out for the moment because you need to
be CRB-checked and I’ve got the assault conviction.’
no longer in the Royal Marines, he said that having joined straight
from school, he would always be a Marine and remains loyal to them.
recalled: ‘It was all I ever wanted to do at school from the earliest
days. I was in the Scouts, then the Army cadets. Straight out of school,
I went for the Corps, and was taken on for the five-day Potential
Recruits Course and then the Royal Marine Commando course in Lympstone,
Devon, for 30 weeks.
‘It was the toughest thing I ever did,
very physically demanding, but it instilled in me the values that have
made me a Marine: courage, courtesy, determination and unselfishness.
I’m not from a military family, but my parents were very proud.’
years of training and operational experience, which included two tours
in Northern Ireland and even a stint filling in for striking
firefighters, were nothing compared to Helmand.
Frontline: Mark (left)
with his Marine comrades in the harsh landscape of Afghanistan in
‘Afghanistan was a very hostile environment. My first tour in 2006 to
2007 was as close to modern-day war-fighting as you can get, and we
were out on the ground in very basic conditions for nearly the whole six
‘We’d create fire positions, occupy buildings,
create an all-round defence and there was a lot of contact. Since then,
the Taliban’s tactics have changed from trying to hit us head-on to
using IEDs, but it’s just as dangerous.’
The fateful incident
began at 2pm on March 19 last year near Wishtan base, Sangin, when four
men were spotted planting an IED.
A patrol gave chase and two
suspects, one of them Ekhlas, were arrested. He put up a fierce
struggle, during which he received facial injuries. The other man was
shot dead while escaping.
Five hours later, Ekhlas, in
plastic handcuffs, was being held a mile away at Forward Operating Base
Jackson, where Sgt Leader and Capt Wheelhouse were based, and the
prisoner was put in the custody of their troop, to be held in a tent.
Royal Military Police Lance-Corporal Ellen Chun ensured he had food and
took photos of his injuries. At some point, the cuffs were removed to
allow Ekhlas to pray.
Sgt Leader said he and Capt Wheelhouse
went to the tent to check on the guard duty, but upon opening the tent
could see no guards, yet found the prisoner, uncuffed and standing up.
Court martial: Mark's
colleague, Captain Jody Wheelhouse, who was also thrown out of the Roayal Marines
over the incident
Sgt Leader said: ‘I immediately assumed he was making a run for it
and I grabbed the nearest weapon available – the boot – and hit him with
it and using minimum force put him down on the ground.’
Chun returned to the tent, having found Ekhlas a sleeping bag, and told
the court she found the two men assaulting the prisoner, who was
streaming with blood.
It turned out that the two Marines guarding
Ekhlas had been in the tent, but were not immediately visible when Sgt
Leader opened the flap, which led him to assume something was wrong and
tackle the prisoner.
He said: ‘It was a split-second judgment
call and the whole thing lasted about two or three seconds. I may have
drawn the wrong conclusion but, given the same circumstances, seeing
what I saw, I’d do the same again without hesitation.’
to the prosecution, the two assailants fled the tent but Sgt Leader
insists he went in search of his sergeant major to explain the
situation. When he found him, however, he was ushered to another empty
tent and told to wait.
He was then arrested, his clothes taken
away for forensic examination and he was given the white jumpsuit,
which he wore for the short Chinook helicopter flight to Camp Bastion.
said: ‘I can still remember sitting on that flight and feeling anger
'The other guys in the helicopter didn’t say
anything, but you could see in their eyes that they knew what was going
He was held overnight and flown back to the UK. It was
not until three days after the incident that he got a chance to explain
himself to the Royal Military Police.
He said: ‘In a way, that
hurt as much as anything. I’d served 18 years with never a disciplinary
problem but now, suddenly, without being given the benefit of the
doubt, I was treated like a criminal and for so long never given the
chance to explain myself.’
Eventually, he was released on bail
and returned to duties in the UK, but for months was left in the dark
as to whether the case would go to trial or be dropped.
the five-day hearing, Sgt Leader remained confident of an acquittal.
lawyer presented expert medical testimony to the effect that swelling
from the injuries sustained during Ekhlas’s initial arrest could have
taken some hours to show fully.
Glowing character references
from senior colleagues presented to the court spoke of Sgt Leader’s
qualities of ‘calm maturity’ and ‘a man of integrity’.
said: ‘I never expected to be found guilty. It seemed clear to me that
the case was not proven. I was telling the truth. I was absolutely
devastated when I heard the verdict. I felt anger at the justice
He said the severity of his sentence had surprised
his colleagues and that they had expected him to be retained.
have this end my career in the Marines was way out of proportion to the
alleged offence. This guy was caught red-handed planting IEDs and soon
after the incident he was released by the Afghan police.
he’s free to go back to what he’s doing, and probably claiming the lives
of British troops, while the life I’ve known for 18 years has come to
‘I may have been brought back to the UK wearing a
paper suit, but on the same plane were the coffins of men who were
killed in Afghanistan. Three of my friends were killed in the months
leading up to this incident, one of whom had to be identified by his
‘Other mates have come back with severe injuries. I feel
lucky compared with them, but I just want to put across the point that
we are asking the troops out there to fight with one arm tied behind
‘People should understand the extreme pressure it
puts on young soldiers when they’re fighting an enemy which has no
rules, while they have to be accountable for their every action.’
Capt Wheelhouse’s guilty plea, he said: ‘I’m loyal to the Royal Marines
and the chain of command, and he was in that chain.’
contemplates life as a civilian – still unsure whether he will receive a
military pension and other benefits worth up to £400,000 – he refuses
to speculate on whether he has been used as a political scapegoat,
adding: ‘That’s not for me to comment on. We’ll never know I suppose.’
Sgt Leader did not seek, and was not
offered, payment for this interview, but a donation has been made to the
Help For Heroes charity.
The MOD, their "back room boys" ought to be held to account
over this Stitch Up.......