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April 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Shame Of A Tragic Bungle

April 30, 2006

by Matt Price - Sunday Telegraph

There can have been few more distressing images than those television pictures of Jake Kovco's mother, Judy, berating a uniformed army officer over the disappearance of her son's corpse.

It captured perfectly the shamefulness of the body bungle. Despairing family members. Impotent military figures. Death deprived the usual dignity, gravity and nobility afforded those who die serving their country.

Now Private Kovco's body is belatedly home on Australian soil his family and friends can grieve properly and, one hopes, privately. They deserve what psychologists describe as closure. The Government and the military most certainly do not.

For far too long the defence department, deploying a platoon of spin doctors and actively egged on by its political masters, has wallowed in a culture encouraging secrecy and deception.

From the moment last weekend when it was revealed Australia had suffered its first military casualty in Iraq, the spin machine shifted into top gear.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson and senior military officers leapt out to ensure us Private Kovco loved his job, loved his mates and loved being in Iraq.

It was all, apparently, a tragic accident which, we were urged to believe, occurred when the young soldier was cleaning his gun.

We've seen Nelson at his best and worst in recent days. Nobody should doubt the Defence Minister's genuine concern for Private Kovco's family both before and after the disappearance of his corpse.

Ever energetic and prone to wear his heart on his sleeve, Nelson's efforts to keep the family consoled and informed should be lauded. His midnight flight to inform widow Judy Kovco of the body bungle was the right thing to do.

But Nelson, the sensitive human being, is also a wily politician. His endless public utterings about Private Kovco's death have had a double edge sympathy for the family and exoneration for the Government.

Before the investigation into the body bungle had even begun, Nelson and Prime Minister John Howard were declaring the army blameless over the misplacement of the corpse which is both hogwash and an extra insult to the family.

Private Kovco's family entrusted the Australian Defence Force with his life and, quite rightly, expected his employer to look after the 25-year-old soldier in death.

Asked whether the Kovcos were owed an apology, Nelson initially blathered on about not being in a position to express sorrow on behalf of the Australian Government. Howard, at least, had the sense to utter his least favourite word sorry.

The confusion over the cause of Private Kovco's death sparked by the minister's errant public statements, has half the country wondering whether the young father committed suicide.

The family is appalled and confounded given Private Kovco's alleged expertise with firearms.

His mother has ridiculed Nelson's public statements. His step-brother has complained of being lied to by officials. That a simple, truthful, initial explanation of Private Kovco's death wasn't forthcoming, at least to family members, is both disgraceful and proof of the ADF's culture of secrecy.

Nelson initially assured us Private Kovco was happy to be in Baghdad and statements by his widow support this.

But the soldier's mother has admitted begging her son not to go to Iraq and reports last week had Private Kovco suffering huge domestic stress after receiving correspondence from his wife shortly before his death.

We should pray the initial, uncomplicated explanations of Private Kovco's death, that he was a happy, enthusiastic soldier who died after a freak accident, are true. This, at least, would bring some relief to shattered family and friends.

Unfortunately, the truth is rarely as rosy.

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