Bloody Aussie Government!

27 April 2006 |



· Private Kovco did not die cleaning his gun
· The wrong body was flown back to Australia
· Soldier escorted casket on flight
· Family furious at military
· Defence chief: we can't figure it out
· Coffin shipping company's response
· A Kuwaiti public holiday will delay returning the right body

The mother of the first Australian soldier killed in Iraq has spoken of her fury at the Federal Government and Defence Force over a blunder which saw another body returned to Australia instead of her son's.

Judy Kovco said her family now wanted to speak out about Jacob Kovco's death.

Mrs Kovco said she was furious that the Army had not been in further contact with her family this morning to clear up the matter.

"The phone had been dead silent this morning. I rang Jake's commanding officer this morning."

"I am very angry and I am very upset right now," she said.

Mrs Kovco said her son's commanding officer had simply repeated earlier suggestions that her son appeared to have accidentally shot himself.

Last night Defence Minister Brendan Nelson flew to Sale in Victoria's east to inform the Kovco family of the mistake.

'All hell broke loose'

Mrs Kovco said "all hell broke loose" when the news was conveyed.

"We were told that it was not my son in that coffin," Mrs Kovco said.

Mrs Kovco said the news reinforced in her mind that her son was dead.

"I was (still) waiting for my son to walk through the door . . . It might be another body, but so is my son's body somewhere."

Mrs Kovco said she believed the body that had accidentally been flown to Australia was that of a Bosnian, and said she is concerned that her son's body may have been sent to Bosnia despite Dr Nelson saying today that Private Kovco's body was still in Kuwait.

Meanwhile, the stepbrother of Private Kovco has lashed out at authorities for disrespecting the dead Australian soldier.

Private Kovco's stepbrother, Ben, said the family was looking for answers and going through a hard time.

"We feel that we have been lied to from the moment this started," he told ABC radio. "We've been kept in the dark and that is the most insulting thing.

"We can handle the truth and it shouldn't be kept from us."

He said his family had been ripped apart. "It's absolutely ripped my family apart that Jake's memory would be disrespected in that way and that is what it is to us - he has just been zeroed down to a number," Ben said.

"It is insulting. It is hugely insulting by everyone involved, not just to the family but to Jake's memory."

He said he hoped no other families had to go through the same thing. "The people who have been involved in completely mishandling this will get my message in another forum - not right now," he said.

He wasn't cleaning his weapon

Mrs Kovco earlier expressed anger at Dr Nelson's statement today dismissing earlier suggestions that Jacob Kovco died while cleaning his gun.

This morning Dr Nelson said that Private Kovco was in his room with two others at the time of the incident and had his 9mm Browning pistol nearby.

"He was in a room with two of his mates who were doing other things, working on the computer and so on," he said.

It has been widely reported that the 25-year-old accidentally shot himself while cleaning his weapon in Baghdad on Friday.

But Dr Nelson today said the reports were incorrect.

"The family's actually quite distressed because the reports are that he was cleaning his weapon," the minister told Macquarie Radio.

"He wasn't in fact cleaning his weapon.

"It was near him in his vicinity and he made some kind of movement which suggests that it discharged.

"There was obviously a live round in it which there should not have been and that's as much as I should probably say at the moment."

How could this happen?

Mrs Kovco said she and her family would not rest until the full truth emerged. She said they have never believed that he died while cleaning his gun.

"How could this happen?'

"My son knew guns so well. None of us can comprehend how this could have happened."

Mrs Kovco said her son had been a deer hunter from a young age.

"You could have put a blindfold on him. He could dismantle a gun and put it together again without even looking at it. We kept saying there's no way, there's no way."

She said the Army owed the family an immediate and clear explanation in light of Mr Nelson's comments this morning.

"He didn't shoot himself," Mrs Kovco said. "The gun went off. It was near him. It was nearby. (So) what did Jake do? Put his head down near the table so it could shoot him in the head, did he?"

Cost cutting goes 'horribly wrong'

David Braithwaite reports: The blunder is an example of cost-cutting gone "horribly wrong'', says Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James.

He said soldiers killed on duty overseas should be flown on air force planes.

"If someone dies serving their country overseas their country can probably afford to pay a bit extra and fly him home in an air force aircraft,'' he said.

"There are many examples where Defence has been forced to rely on civil contractors because of constrained funding levels and this time it's gone horribly wrong.

"We would like to see the policy seriously examined - they need to use a RAAF aircraft to ensure the point-to-point transfer of the casket.

"It's not just an operational issue, it's a moral issue.''

Private Kovco's comrades in Iraq would be angry but would get on with their job, Mr James said.

"It will be reasonably discouraging to the members of the unit - they're soldiers and they're used to getting on with it, but they'll certainly be angry,'' he said.

"The other bloke I feel sorry for is the body escort - he's obviously been separated from the body for bureaucratic reasons, but he'll feel absolutely terrible.''

Member of Jake's unit escorted body

AAP reports: Air Marshal Angus Houston says there was a soldier attending Private Kovco's casket during the entire return flight.

"There is always an escort person, in this case we had a senior member of Jake's unit," he said.

"His job was to escort the casket back - he was with this casket all the way through.

"We don't know the circumstances how this terrible situation arose, but I can assure you ... that we are doing everything we can to establish the facts.

"It just seems one of those situations where we can't figure out what happened."

Shipping company response

Kenyon International, a company that has been involved in the recovery of bodies from more than 300 disasters during its 75-year history, had the responsibility of returning Private Kovco's body to Melbourne from Kuwait.

A spokesman for Kenyon said the company was focused on reuniting the body of Private Kovco with his family.

"Our focus is of course to reunite the soldier with his family, and try and help them begin the grieving and healing process,'' spokesman Mario Gomez told ABC radio from the United States.

"We're still just working with officials to determine what happened, but we're just trying to maintain focus on trying to help the family,'' he said.

Mr Gomez said he did not know the identity of the body that was mistakenly sent to Australia in Private Kovco's place, although the government has said it was a soldier from an eastern European nation.

** Kovco blunder firm owned by 'funeralgate' company

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