The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson,
Minister for Defence

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27 Apr 2006
60427/06
  Date

DOORSTOP ON RETURN OF REMAINS OF PRIVATE JAKE KOVCO

Melbourne Airport

0800hrs, Thursday, 27 April 2006

E&oe………………………………………………………………return of PTE Jakob Kovco

 

DR NELSON

Good morning, good morning everybody. And I'm sorry for everybody's sake that it's necessary for us all to be here and particularly at this time. Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, of course, is the Chief of the Australian Army. As we are all aware as Australians, we had tragically last week, some five or six days ago, news of the death in very tragic circumstances of Private Jake Kovco.

We had expected that Private Kovco's body would be returned to Australia in the early hours of this morning, at precisely just after midnight on Thursday morning. The circumstances are that, I had suggested to General Leahy that it would be appropriate for us to arrange for Shelley Kovco and her children and their extended family, to come to Melbourne to welcome home the body of their much beloved husband and father, and Australia's loved soldier, Private Jake Kovco.

We were about to board the RAAF 737BBJ jet, which we had arranged to take to Sale to pick up the family. And at 20 minutes past nine, just before boarding the plane in Canberra last night, the Chief of Army received a phone call which had come from the Middle East. And it was to inform us that in fact Private Jake Kovco's body and casket remained still in Kuwait, and we were further advised that another casket, not that containing Private Kovco's body, had been incorrectly despatched to Australia on a commercial flight.

I made the decision that we would fly directly to Sale and speak directly to Mrs Kovco and her family, to explain to them the circumstances as we then knew them, and to express of course, not only our sorrow but our distressed anguish that such a thing could occur. Needless to say, the Kovco family were quite distressed and perfectly understandably.

I arranged for Shelley Kovco, Mrs Kovco, to speak to the Prime Minister. I phoned him at the Lodge and woke him in fact, and he had a conversation with Mrs Kovco, in which she expressed her disappointment and distress that her husband's casket had not in fact been despatched to Australia.

The circumstances as I'm advised are of course that a C-130 Hercules moved Private Kovco's body and casket, which had been placed on the aircraft by his mates in Baghdad. It had been transferred to Kuwait to the US military mortuary in Kuwait, and then subsequently transferred to a private mortuary contracting firm, which is used extensively by the Australian Government for the repatriation of Australians who may unexpectedly be deceased whilst overseas.

We, at this stage my first priority, apart from the care of the Kovco family, which has been provided to them. We have also a number of Jake's mates from 3RAR, who are with Mrs Kovco, including Jake's Commanding Officer from 3RAR, and they will be with her and the family over the next two to three days. We have positively identified that Private Jake Kovco's body and casket remain in Kuwait. It will be released as soon as possible and transported to Australia, as soon as it is humanly possibly.

I have instructed the Defence Department to explore all options, including a private charter. I also offered to make available an RAAF 737 to take Mrs Kovco and her family to Kuwait, if that is what they wished and they preferred, for understandable reasons, not to do that. At this stage, unless we are able to arrange it sooner, the complicating factor being that it is a public holiday, a Muslim holiday, in Kuwait at the moment, but we expect Private Jake Kovco's body to arrive just after midnight on Friday night, in other words in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Whilst I find this deeply distressing that such a thing could occur in any circumstances, but that it should occur where an Australian soldier serving his country in the cause of freedom in Iraq, should lose his life and then his family face the kind of distressing disappointment at not having his casket arrive when it should, and instead of course the casket containing another person, is in my view totally unacceptable.

A full investigation into this will be initiated. I have spoken to the Chief of Defence and of course to the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy. Two people will be despatched to Kuwait very early next week. One will be a senior military officer chosen by the Chief of Defence. The second will be a senior medical person, a pathologist, a person whom I will contact and ask that he will accompany the senior military officer to Kuwait, to conduct a full inquiry into what happened.

We also, in my opinion, I think that we in Defence, we need to re-examine the way in which we bring our people back to Australia, when these kind of tragic incidents occur, as they do from time to time. And where there is always the risk, so long as we have troops deployed, whether in the Middle East, Solomon Islands, or anywhere else. Because in my view, I think there is a pressing case for we in the Australian Defence Force, to take care of our own people and wherever practicable and wherever possible, to bring them back to Australia under our own steam.

No stone will be left unturned in finding out what happened and why it happened. My early investigation and consultations with people who are in Kuwait, who are involved in this, suggest to me that in fact the error has occurred in the civilian mortuary itself and the despatch of Private Jake Kovco's casket from the mortuary to the aircraft. The investigation will of course determine precisely what happened, and more important what we can do to make darn sure this kind of thing does not happen again.

I have expressed to Mrs Kovco and her family, the deepest sympathies and regrets of the Australian Government and the Australian people that such a thing could occur. And I can assure you that we will do everything to cater for her needs, and that of her family, and again I offer my condolences and sympathies to not only the Kovco family, but their friends and all Australians, who quite rightly, are offended by this kind of error.

[BREAK IN TRANSMISSION]

LIEUTENANT GENERAL PETER LEAHY

… with his mates. Shelley asked last night to be with him, and they're supporting her, her family and her children as much as they can. And we'll make sure that we provide them all the support we can over the next few difficult days.

QUESTION

Minister, you are saying this is a bad example?

DR NELSON

Well look this is a very distressing event. Imagine any one of us, every single one of us has lost someone that we love through the course of our life. Imagine losing your husband under circumstances where he was proudly serving his country, and then have the incorrect despatch of a casket to your country. And a welcome home, in which participation was coming from the Minister for Defence, the Chief of Army, the Army's Chief Warrant Officer, and your own husband's mates, and to have this happen.

Of course we are, and I'm personally, very angry about it. I'm very disappointed. The inquiry and the investigation will get to the bottom of it. But I just ask Australians, it's very easy to criticise Defence. It's a large organisation. It does wonderful things for Australians and for people in times of trouble, but don't just, I just say to Australians, don't just take a free kick here.

Let's just have this inquiry, because 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.

QUESTION

Minister, Australians are going to be lining up to give you a kick this morning, rightly or wrongly, this is a debacle. People will be outraged.

DR NELSON

Well I share the sense of angered disappointed that Australians have in this regard. The most important thing at the moment is that we bring Private Kovco home, that we get him home as soon as we can, that we do everything we can to see that comfort's provided to Mrs Kovco. We find out what happened, why it happened, and most importantly, we make sure that we've got systems in place that see it doesn't happen again.

I have learned a lot in the last 12 hours, about how Australia's repatriation system works for Australian Defence personnel who may tragically be killed whilst on deployment.

QUESTION

From what you've said, it sounds as though Mrs Kovco gave the PM a bit of an earful.

DR NELSON

Well, we have a wonderful Prime Minister I can tell you. The Prime Minister had just gone to bed. He was asleep. Mrs Kovco said I would like to speak to the Prime Minister. So I said I'll arrange it. I rang the Prime Minister, I got through. I said I'm with Mrs Kovco. She would like to speak to you, Prime Minister. He took the call, and yes she gave him an earful, in a polite Australian way but he got the message.

And when I spoke to him afterwards, he said Brendan, if you need to speak to me again about this at any time through the night, or anything else in relation to it, then please do so. And of course we will do whatever we can to find out what happened, and make sure it doesn't happen again.

Look, could I also just say to all of us, that when we're dealing in other countries with other companies that we don't directly control, unfortunately whether we wish to accept it or not, these kind of dreadful mistakes can occur. That doesn't make it any easier to accept. But one of the things that I'm determined to do is not only find out what happened, I'm also determined to see if we can have a very serious look at the way in which we bring our Australian Defence people home, should they tragically be killed whilst on deployment.

QUESTION

Minister, what time did the PM take the phone call?

DR NELSON

Well I would think it would be about just before 11 o'clock, about that time, last night.

QUESTION

How tough was that conversation?

DR NELSON

Look, I don't think it's appropriate for me to talk about how tough anything is for me, or the Chief of Army. Nothing is as tough for us, as it is for Mrs Kovco and her family. My heart goes out to those people. And all I can say is, I'm very pleased that we took the initiative of actually arranging for an RAAF jet to pick them up and take them down, and to be there with them. I'd be terrified to think what might have happened had the family just been at the airport themselves.

We brought the family from Sale, having had this very difficult conversation. We brought the family from Sale to Melbourne Airport, where we then were able to meet with another half a dozen members of the family, some of them elderly, and explain the tragic situation that we're all in. And I've got to say, they're great Australians. They weren't happy, but I can tell you that the Kovco family, all of them, great people and they were angry and they dished it out to me, and they dished it out to the Chief of the Army and I don't blame them.

QUESTION

So Mrs Kovco was here at the airport?

DR NELSON

Mrs Kovco was here at the airport and of course, as I said we went to Sale in the RAAF jet; I very carefully walked her through what I understood had happened and what I understood at that stage at least in terms of why it might have happened. I then offered to bring her to Melbourne in the RAAF jet and her family. Most of them chose to do so. They were then able to meet up with half a dozen other family members that were already waiting in Melbourne.

And so what that meant of course that we were able to at least bring all of the family together and deal with it, deal with the anger and the grief about not only Jake's loss, but also this dreadful incident.

QUESTION

When Mrs Kovco first saw you and you told her what had happened, what was her first reaction?

DR NELSON

Well look I don't think it's appropriate for me to repeat that. If the family chooses to do that that's their business, but essentially it was one of anguish, disbelief and sadly over the years particularly in my previous life I've had to do quite a bit of that.

QUESTION

What do you know about the body that arrived in Melbourne?

DR NELSON

Well we do know only a little bit but I think it's quite inappropriate for me to disclose any information that I have, even if I had more, to the Australian public.

Clearly the casket and the body within it is now in the custodian of the Victorian Coroner. It will be repatriated to Kuwait as soon as practicable and clearly there is a family somewhere in the world who would not appreciate those kinds of details being published here in Australia.

QUESTION

Presumably another person who was to be repatriated from Kuwait, not a Kuwaiti?

DR NELSON

Look I think it's inappropriate for me to say anything other than that.

QUESTION

Is there any question marks over the body of Mr Kovco? Are you absolutely certain you know…

DR NELSON

Yeah, very good question because when the Chief of Army advised me at 9.22 last night as we were about to get on the plane that this had occurred, my first reaction was are you sure? My first reaction was are you absolutely sure that Private Kovco remains in Kuwait?

I then phoned the Consul General in Kuwait – the Australian Consul General – and specifically sought further information. It wasn't until 12.30 this morning that I was able to be assured 100 per cent that in fact it's Private Kovco who remains in Kuwait, and that another person had been erroneously despatched to Australia in a casket.

QUESTION

Even though this is a private contractor in Kuwait was there not someone from ADF or the Defence Department or DFAT appointed to oversee this process when Private Kovco's body was brought there?

DR NELSON

Well look, firstly the investigation that will be undertaken will deal with all of that and establish all of that. My early advice is in fact that when Private Kovco was transferred by Australian RAAF C-130 Hercules from Baghdad to Kuwait he was indeed accompanied by Australian Defence Force personnel; he was positively identified in Kuwait; he was accompanied at all times by one of the non-commissioned officers from the 3RAR. And you could imagine that the degree of distress that is felt, not only by the Kovco family, but the army family and Jake's army family in particular that this should occur.

I am concerned and I will be particularly asking the inquiry to examine the practices at the mortuary in Kuwait.

QUESTION

So without getting too gruesome about it, it seems it's the case that it was confirmed that it was Private Kovco's body going into that mortuary and no one thought to check or look – I don't know how these things are done – to make sure it was his body coming out?

DR NELSON

Well that kind of detail will be examined in the course of the investigation, but I can assure you that the Australian Defence Force – I am advised most certainly – positively identified Private Jake Kovco when he was delivered from the United States Military mortuary in Kuwait into the civilian mortuary.

And the investigation will focus on what has happened after that.

QUESTION

Has it happened before?

DR NELSON

To my knowledge in military life in the Australian Defence Force under these circumstances, to my knowledge it has not.

But as many of you might be aware I spent 13 years practising medicine and I am afraid that from time to time it does occur in civilian Australian life. As unfortunately we do from time to time have – not that it's acceptable – but patients who might have incorrect procedures performed.

So I am not aware of it ever occurring in the Australian Defence Force under these circumstances. And I can tell you, I can tell you one thing, if I have anything to do with it, it will never occur again.

QUESTION

Will you look at labelling of the coffins in a particular way that this will never happen again?

DR NELSON

Look one of the things that will be examined in the investigation is the labelling. I am advised that our labelling system, the Australian Defence Force labelling system is extremely good.

And Australians would remember that Australian Defence Force and Federal Police and others actually played a key role in assisting Indonesians after the Bali bombing and the Tsunami and other incidents. But Australia has a lot of expertise in this regard.

The problem occurs for us is when we are in the hands of other organisations in other countries, and so I'll leave it at that. But the investigation will look into that.

QUESTION

Is it safe to say you won't be using this particular contractor again, should the need arise?

DR NELSON

Well I don't want to give lawyers more work than they already have, but that's a question I would enjoy answering with you over a beer.

QUESTION

Have you had any sleep tonight?

DR NELSON

No and I'm certainly not complaining about that.

QUESTION

[Inaudible]

DR NELSON

The particular contractor that's used is used internationally by a significant number of countries. I am advised that the contractor involved in this particular case has provided long and very good service to the Australian Government through a number of departments in the repatriation of Australians tragically losing their lives overseas.

But needless to say I am far from happy with the outcome in this particular case.

QUESTION

What's the name of the contractor?

DR NELSON

I won't divulge that at this stage.

QUESTION

Why are you saying [inaudible] because you are disappointed with their behaviour, and the way they've handled it? Why are you [inaudible]?

DR NELSON

Well I'd prefer that we have the investigation before we go too much further into that. But I've given you at least an indication of what my early personal research has found.

QUESTION

[Inaudible]

DR NELSON

Well it's not appropriate for me to tell you where the Kovco family is. All I…

QUESTION

That family have been taken from here to somewhere else?

DR NELSON

The Kovco family has been cared for and is currently being cared for by the Australian Army and supported by their own extended network of friends and family and I won't say any more than that.

QUESTION

Can I just get this straight? The Kovco family came to Melbourne, you picked them up in Sale, this was after you knew the body – the wrong body had arrived?

DR NELSON

We were in a situation where as I said I had said to the Chief of Army that I thought it would be appropriate for us to take one of our RAAF 737s from Canberra to Sale to pick the family up, bring them to Melbourne and have a full military reception of Jake Kovco's body from the aircraft.

As we were literally about to board the plane to leave Canberra, the Chief of Army received this news and passed it on to me immediately. I felt that the best thing to do was to get on the plane and to tell the family face-to-face; explain to them truthfully everything we knew at that stage, as difficult as it would be not only for them, but also for the Chief of Army and myself in doing so.

And then to offer to bring them to Melbourne, which is precisely what they chose to do and what we did. And we will also be taking them back to Sale when they choose to return.

QUESTION

And their main motive in doing that was to meet with the family already here?

DR NELSON

Mrs Kovco of course was anxious to meet the remaining family members that were already in Melbourne, and she was also very anxious to meet the other members of the RAR family of soldiers, the young men who'd served with and worked with Private Jake Kovco, who loved him in many ways as much as his own family.

She was very keen to see them and I can tell you there were a few tears shed on both sides when they met.

QUESTION

Did the conversation happen at her home, or at the RAAF base in Sale?

DR NELSON

The conversation occurred at the RAAF base in an appropriate private situation.

QUESTION

Will the Kovco family and his colleagues be back on Saturday morning?

DR NELSON

It is the full intention, as I understand it, of the Kovco family [break in transmission] It is the full intention, as I understand it, of the Kovco family and Jake's soldiers and his mates to welcome him home when he returns, which we expect at this stage to be very early on Saturday morning.

QUESTION

Shelley Kovco last night was organising the funeral for her husband. What happens now? Obviously that will be delayed?

DR NELSON

Well of course you would expect that the funeral will be delayed and under the circumstances of course there's not much that any of us can do about that.

I was, look I was to have flown out to Washington this morning; I'm not doing that. I'm determined to stay here all day until I'm satisfied that all of the arrangements are in place and that Shelley and her family get what they deserve, and that's their husband and their father.

QUESTION

Is it possible this wasn't an accident and it might have been an attempt to embarrass Australia?

DR NELSON

Well look I certainly would assume that it's an accident, a terrible mistake, an astonishing one, distressing one, but I don't under any circumstances contemplate the notion it was anything other than a terrible mistake. We've got to find out where was the mistake made, why was it made and what can we do to make damn sure it doesn't happen again.

QUESTION

Does the Government apologise for this mistake?

DR NELSON

Well at this stage I'm not certain whether it's the Government or the Defence Department or indeed the contractor, or other individuals who were actually responsible for the outcome that we've got.

And of course I can't begin to express the sorrow that I feel for the Kovco family and the distress I feel about the whole thing, but at this stage all of us – and I'm particularly very sorry – and as inadequate as a word as it is to say to Shelley and her family, of course I am very sorry.

But I'm not in a position at the moment to express sorrow, if you like, on behalf of the Australian Government and let's just find out what the cause of it was first.

I mean the first priority is let's get Jake back; let's make sure Australians know what a great soldier he was; how proud that we are of him; how proud his family and his mates were of him. Let's get him back and then let's find out what happened before we start assigning blame.

QUESTION

Are there any avenues of compensation for families suffering [inaudible]?

DR NELSON

Look I don't know but we will do… look I don't know but we will do whatever has to be done and appropriately should be done to help this family. As I said they dished it out to me and they're great Australians and they shouldn't be criticised for that. I can't begin to imagine how they would feel in these circumstances. But at this stage look can I just say that that's the last thing on my mind, and I suspect on theirs as well.

QUESTION

The investigation that will be happening or is to take place, will that be your Department or…?

DR NELSON

Well the way the military system works – General Leahy knows more about this than me – but the Chief of Defence would normally initiate such an investigation if he thinks it's necessary.

I have discussed this with him overnight. Indeed it is necessary. He will choose a relatively senior officer and I have told him that I would like that person to be accompanied by an independent senior medical specialist – and I have a person in mind, that I will phone later this morning – that both can go to Kuwait very early next week and conduct an investigation [break in transmission].

QUESTION

With the department investigating itself, shouldn't the investigation be more independent?

DR NELSON

[Break in transmission] …normally have an appropriate senior military person do the investigation and that was said to the Chief of Defence who agrees that I will appoint an independent [break in transmission] what we need is someone that fully understands and respects good practice in relation to the management of caskets and [break in transmission].

QUESTION

[break in transmission]

BRENDAN NELSON

Well because I think it's important, given it would appear [break in transmission] with the mortuary, albeit in another country, it would be [break in transmission] the management of issues after death. So I think that the combination is the right thing to have a look at it in the way in which we bring our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women overseas, how do we bring them back to Australia? How does the system actually work and can [break in transmission]

And as a lay person that would, if I had been asked before I became the Defence Minister I would have thought that's how it happens, but I've discovered that's not how it happens. And if it happens much closer to home well of course we pick up our own people. But in this case we're bringing Jake Kovco back from Iraq, a C-130 Hercules from Baghdad to Kuwait and then the normal circumstance I am advised is to then transfer to a commercial flight and it seems to have worked over the years.

But in my view one stuff up in this area is one too many and as far as I'm concerned I will do what I can to make sure it does not happen again.

Thank you very much everyone.

* End *

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