Donegal woman demands inquiry, apology for soldier brother’s death in Lebanon
’We lost friends but they lost family members,’ says soldier who served on fatal 1981 mission
Vanessa Nee: sister of the late Pte Hugh Doherty who was killed in Lebanon in 1981. Photograph: Declan Doherty
Vanessa Nee was just two years old when her brother Private Hugh Doherty was shot and killed in Lebanon in 1981. “I just grew up with a dead brother,” she says, reflecting on the sibling she has no memory of. Her recollections relate to the story her family was told of his death at the age of 20 on his first overseas mission with the Defence Forces.
Almost exactly 33 years later and married with three children, she now has an utterly different tale about how events unfolded on that fateful and fatal day: April 27th 1981.
And with that knowledge she is demanding a proper, independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death and that of Private Kevin Joyce, whose body was never recovered.
Her Donegal home is a long way from the village of Dyar Ntar in south Lebanon where the two men met their deaths, Joyce just days from returning home after his six-month stint and Hughie just five days into what he had expected to be a great adventure.
But in the past year the Letterkenny woman has unexpectedly become something of an expert on Lebanese geography, paramilitary factions, geopolitics, military politics and politicking as well as the investigations carried out into the killings of the men.
Nee has copious notes, documents and files on the incident that has had such an impact on her family, but keeps it all from her own children, whom she does not wish to worry.
A bright, sparky woman, she is determined to get answers. And she wants Minister for Defence Alan Shatter to help.
The Minister has agreed to meet the family and that is expected to happen sometime after Easter. The controversy has been aired a number of times in the Dáil by Sinn Féin defence spokesman Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, who met Nee and a number of soldiers who had served with her brother.
In his response the Minister never raised expectations. In fact, he repeatedly stated that he was not optimistic the issue would be resolved “in a manner that would be fitting and appropriate”.
But for the dead soldier’s sister, his comments marked a major step forward. “Shatter said in the Dáil there were mistakes made. That’s the first time it was officially admitted,” she said. “It took them 33 years to admit it.”
The inquiries that took place were, she feels, the Army investigating itself. What she wants is an apology, especially to her mother. “My mother is now an old-age pensioner and it’s time for her to get some answers.
“When Hughie died she accepted what the Army told her. She would never question authority, what the Army, the church, the doctor said. I’m a different generation and I’m not going away.”
She wants “an apology for letting us believe that Kevin Joyce killed Hughie. We were never officially told that, there was nothing written down but we were led to believe it.”
Her mother never believed that.
“Why would he want to kill Hughie when he was five days from going home and his cases were packed? It just doesn’t make sense.”
But her mother also felt great sympathy for the Joyce family on the Aran Islands. “Mammy said at least we know where Hughie is”, his body returned home and buried in his native Donegal. “It must be bloody terrible for them,” she adds.
On that April day the two soldiers were sent out on their own on security duty at a place with no real cover at a time when Israeli and PLO bombardments were intense. “They were sitting ducks.”
She is convinced of a cover-up by the Army, an allegation the Minister noted in Dáil responses, along with subsequent efforts to locate Joyce’s remains.
“The Army is not going to say they’re wrong and anybody would do the same if they were in that position. But they knew they shouldn’t have sent them out,” she said. “There was a complete disregard for anybody except the boys at the top. I want the Army to apologise.”
And for the soldiers who served with Hughie, it is a tragedy they cannot let lie.
Donegal man Michael Walker is one of those men. “This issue has plagued us,” he said. It happened five days after their arrival. “It was a long
5½ months on that mission afterwards,” he recalls.
“I trained with Hughie Doherty for four months and our training was always a ‘section’ – two NCOs and six privates and two Land Rovers,” he said. “But in war-torn Lebanon two men were sent out in field with no defence, just a stone wall.”
Things are a lot safer now. “They’ll never get caught out like that again.”
Two inquiries were carried out, one he describes as a UN board of inquiry. The second was conducted by the then director of operations for the Defence Forces, but Walker has criticised it and says the best solution is an independent review similar to that carried out by senior counsel Frank Callinan three years ago into another Defence Forces tragedy in Lebanon in1989 when three soldiers were killed in a landmine incident.
“We’ve had Bloody Sunday looked at again and re-investigated, the 1989 landmine was looked at again, and this should be investigated again as well.”
There should be a “full acknowledgement” from the Defence Forces and a statement from the Minister.
Thirty-three years on, he points out “we’ve lost friends but they have lost family members”.