Two big questions over the death in Iraq of Australian soldier Private Jake Kovco: how exactly was he killed, and what led to his body being left in Kuwait while another’s—apparently that of a Bosnian soldier— was flown to Australia in his place? On the first question:
* Defence Minister Brendan Nelson’s description of Kovco’s accidental shooting first involved him handling his firearm, which was later revised:
In the immediate aftermath of the death, Dr Nelson said he had been advised Private Kovco was simply handling and maintaining his gun, as soldiers were required to do.
“For some unexplained reason, the firearm discharged, and a bullet unfortunately entered the soldier’s head, and several hours after the injury, despite receiving the best of medical care, he unfortunately passed away,” Dr Nelson said on Saturday.
“He had returned to his room with two of his mates. They had been out on patrol,” [Nelson] told reporters.
“He was doing something other than handling his firearm and in the process of fiddling about with the other equipment he had, it would appear, that in some way he’s knocked his gun and it’s discharged. There is no suggestion it was anything other than an accident.”
“My son is dead and there’s a big cover-up,’’ mum Judy Kovco told the Herald Sun yesterday …
Judy Kovco refused to believe her son, an expert gunman, accidentally shot himself. “How does an intelligent boy that is so knowledgeable about guns shoot himself in the head?’‘
* Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston denies any cover-up.
On the second question:
* Brendan Nelson’s version of events seems straightforward enough:
His body was transferred by his mates, in respectful military tradition, onto the back of a C-130 Hercules, one of ours, which took him to Kuwait. He was transferred to a US military mortuary and then subsequently to a civilian mortuary.
He was at all times appropriately identified by the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Army. He was accompanied by one of the non-commissioned officers, one of the mates with whom he worked.
And it appears that the private company, which is involved in the repatriation of Australians who might sadly lose their lives overseas, something happened between him being identified in the civilian mortuary and his transfer then to the commercial flight back to Australia.
* That private company, Kenyon International Emergency Services, is massively experienced in this line of work:
From mass graves in the Balkans to hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami to September 11, Kenyon has been there to identify, collect and repatriate bodies.
The Federal Government uses Kenyon to send its deceased citizens home. It engaged the company after the first Bali bombings and in Thailand after the tsunami.
The Texas-based firm has attended more than 300 disasters and employs about 1000 body handlers.
* Nelson is now leery of private-sector involvement in repatriation:
I am very suspicious that we’ve been let down by a system which is actually beyond our direct control and if we are going to do something which is to ensure that this doesn’t happen to one of our defence personnel in the future, then I think we in Defence should take responsibility for bringing our people home and not rely on elements which involve commercial or the private sector.
* The mistake, with the advantage of hindsight, and at great remove, seems terribly obvious:
On Sunday, after a memorial service with full military honours, a flag-draped aluminium casketbearing the body of the 25-year-old private left Baghdad airport on board an RAAF C-130 bound for Kuwait …
The casket loaded aboard the cargo hold of an Emirates aircraft for the short connecting flight to Dubai appears to have been a wooden one.
* Kenyon says it is not responsible for identifying the deceased—as distinct from identifying coffins, which appears to be the issue here:
The company said in a statement it was usual practice for a Kenyon agent to be involved in repatriation, but representatives from the Australian Defence Force and the Australian government, such as the local consul or embassy, would identify the deceased soldier.
“It is uncertain as to whether this process was followed in this instance as the facts are still being ascertained,” the company said.
“It should be noted that during the formal process Kenyon is not responsible for the role of identifying the body of the deceased.”
It should also be noted that the body had apparently already been identified. Brigadier Liz Cosson will lead an investigation into this mess; meanwhile, the Australian air force is currently working to return Jake Kovco to his devastated family, for whom Currency Lad has a heartfelt message.