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Private Jacob "Jake" Kovco was the first Australian soldier to die while deployed to the Middle East during the Iraq War.

He was fatally wounded by a single shot to the head from his own sidearm while serving with Operation Catalyst in Iraq on April 21, 2006.

Five months after his death, a military board of inquiry was held to determine if it was suicide, an accident, or a deliberate act.

 
 
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KOVCO FAMILY FURY AT DEFENCE COVER UP

 

By Justin Vallejo

 
 

"What are you hiding about jake's death?"

Tuesday, September 5

THE family of Private Jake Kovco have accused the Australian Defence Force of covering up its role in the soldier’s tragic death.

The attack on the ADF and Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson was launched by Pte Kovco’s parents and brother yesterday at the board of inquiry into his death, which they fear will never reveal the whole truth.

In a 10-page statement read out on behalf of the family, brother Ben Kovco said the ADF had ‘‘gone out of their way to destroy as much evidence as possible in an attempt to protect the organisation and its personnel from any implication of wrongdoing’’.

‘‘We feel that the ADF and its officers contributed to Jake’s death by failing to properly follow and implement their own SOPs [standard operating procedures], including the use of the so-called buddy system,’’ he said.

Pte Kovco was shot in the head with his own pistol while in his Baghdad barracks on April 21, after returning from a patrol of the Australian Embassy.

Mr Kovco said his family would be haunted forever because they would never know exactly what happened to his brother.

‘‘While we sincerely hope to find some answers via this board of inquiry, it is difficult to see it as much more than a face-saving exercise to protect the ADF ranking officers involved in this tragic incident,’’ Mr Kovco said.

Pte Kovco's parents Judy and Martin

Pte Kovco's parents Judy and Martin

Pte Kovco’s two roommates, codenamed Soldiers 17 and 19, were with him but claim they did not see what happened. Another private, codenamed Soldier 14, who was on duty with Pte Kovco that day, was unable to explain how his DNA ended up on the gun which killed his mate.

Mr Kovco said the claims of Soldiers 17 and 19 were ‘‘absurd’’ and that it was ‘‘insulting’’ Soldier 14 had been unable to explain the presence of his DNA on the gun. The Kovco family also turned their anger on the defence minister, saying Dr Nelson had made ‘‘ridiculous’’ comments to the media shortly after the shooting before any proper investigation into the circumstances of the incident.

A day after Pte Kovco was shot, Dr Nelson said Pte Kovco’s pistol had gone off ‘‘for some unexplained reason’’ while he was cleaning it. However, five days later, he backtracked and said Pte Kovco had accidentally knocked the gun. Pte Kovco’s mother said the family was not speaking on behalf of his widow, Shelly Kovco, who was not at the inquiry yesterday.

‘‘Regarding the family having separate representation — whilst Shelly and her family and our family all grieve for Jake, our approach to the board and the evidence before it has not always been as one voice,’’ Mrs Kovco said. The inquiry continues today.

 
 
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KOVCO'S LAST MOMENTS:SINGING... THEN A SHOT.

 
 

Thursday, September 7

LOUD singing and ‘‘obnoxious Digger’’ gibberish was heard coming from Private Jake Kovco’s room seconds before he was shot dead. A soldier revealed yesterday how he yelled out to Pte Kovco to be quiet at the moment the fatal gun shot rang out through their Baghdad barracks on April 21.

The account of Soldier 20 supports claims by Soldier 14, whose DNA was found on the 9mm pistol, that he was not in the room at the time of the shooting.

The chilling details came as Defence Minister Brendan Nelson attempted to deny a cover-up and deflect criticism over the conflicting reasons he gave for the mystery shooting.

Soldier 20 told the board of inquiry he was trying to sleep in the next room as the soldiers in Pte Kovco’s room engaged in what he called ‘‘obnoxious Digger s . . .’’. They ignored his pleas for silence and continued, including singing along to The Cranberries.

‘‘Soldier 14 and I both yelled simultaneously and then the gun shot rang out,’’ he said yesterday. He rushed to the door to see Pte Kovco’s roommates, Soldiers 17 and 19, frantically trying to administer first aid. Dr Nelson has changed his story of the shooting several times, first claiming Pte Kovco was cleaning his service pistol and then saying he was not handling the gun at the time of the shooting.

He said in a statement tendered to the inquiry yesterday there was no attempt at a ‘‘cover up, deceit, or misinformation’’ following Pte Kovco’s death. He blamed the ADF’s top brass for giving him the wrong information and said it was the media who claimed Pte Kovco was cleaning the pistol, not him.

Meanwhile, the president of the company contracted for repatriating Pte Kovco’s body has denied any responsibility for the bungled operation.

Kenyon International Emergency Services president Robert Jensen told the inquiry they were only responsible for transporting the Pte Kovco’s casket and not identifying the body within. The ADF and Kenyon International will both now review the contract, which ends in 2009.  

 
 
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KOVCO SPECULATION BASED ON OLD WAR STORY

 
 

Friday, September 8

DEFENCE Minister Brendan Nelson used old Vietnam War stories as the basis for speculation on how Private Jake Kovco was shot dead.

Despite repeated warnings that no one knew the truth, Dr Nelson publicly stated Pte Kovco was ‘‘handling and maintaining’’ his pistol in his Baghdad barracks — without any evidence from army bosses to support the claim.

An inquiry into Pte Kovco’s death heard that Chief of Defence Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston warned Dr Nelson on three occasions that it was too early to speculate on the April 21 shooting and that an investigation would be required.

‘‘The minister asked to elaborate further on how circumstances like this could arise,’’ ACM Houston said in a statement to the court.

‘‘I reiterated again that nothing was definitely known about the circumstances of this incident or what happened.

‘‘But in the past there have been numerous unauthorised discharges associated with handling of weapons.

‘‘I went on to discuss 9mm Browning incidents from Vietnam times and other incidents that had occurred in Timor.’’

The next morning Dr Nelson said Pte Kovco was ‘‘handling and maintaining’’ his weapon when it discharged. He was forced into an embarrassing backflip five days later, saying that the 25-year-old soldier had accidentally knocked the self-loading pistol.

Dr Nelson has blamed ACMHouston and Chief of Army Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy for feeding him the wrong information, claims that both officers have now denied.

The latest insult to the Kovco family emerged yesterday as images were released of the squalid Kuwait mortuary where his body was abandoned, and subsequently misplaced, without the ‘‘dignity and respect’’ he deserved.

The inquiry heard earlier this week that contractors were forced by the Kuwait Government to store his body at the Al Shaba morgue, which is often overcrowded.

Robert Jensen, the president of the company responsible for Pte Kovco’s repatriation, said the morgue could have been bypassed if the ADF chose to use a military aircraft.

‘‘If I was asked to use that mortuary in Sydney, for example, or in the United States, I would decline,’’ Mr Jensen said.

 
 
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HUNT FOR KOVCO SMOKING GUN

 
 

Did the risky weapons culture among Diggers in Baghdad contribute to Pte Kovco’s death?

Tuesday, September 19

PRIVATE Jake Kovco’s mother last night said she refuses to believe her son shot himself either intentionally or accidentally and has accused the Australian Army of a major cover-up.

Asked whether she thought her son had been murdered or accidental shot by someone else, Judy Kovco said: ‘‘I certainly do, yes, without doubt— they’ve [been complicit in a cover-up] it in the past’’.

Mrs Kovco’s comments come as a three-man board of inquiry into Pte Kovco’s death said it would investigate pictures on the internet of soldiers skylarking with weapons. The inquiry’s legal team yesterday requested the pictures and video footage showing soldiers waving pistols and holding a gun to the neck of a man dressed as an Arab.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Colonel Michael Griffin, said he had asked defence chiefs to see the pictures posted on youTube.com to determine if there was any ‘‘overlap of personnel or correlation of actions or places’’.

He is investigating whether the board should take the images, shot between late 2003 and 2005, into consideration.

Mrs Kovco said she was prepared for the possibility the inquiry, which is due to finish by the end of this week, would deliver an open finding.

‘‘Yes, but I’ll fight for myson forever,’’ she said. ‘‘By enduring this inquiry, I just find this is face-saving for them, the army, this is not about my son’s death.’’

The board yesterday signalled its intentions to make adverse findings against Pte Kovco for failing to follow standard operating procedures before he died in his Baghdad barracks.

Pte Kovco had been reprimanded for handling his 9mm pistol dangerously. The inquiry heard those findings would stem from evidence given by Private Steve Carr, formerly known as Soldier 14 but can now be identified after returning from Iraq.

Pte Carr has told the inquiry Pte Kovco did not follow standard operating procedures to clear his 9mm pistol before he was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head on April 21. He also witnessed Pte Kovco conduct the dangerous practice of ‘‘silent cocking’’.

Pte Jake Kovco's weapon

Pte Jake Kovco's weapon

Counsel representing Pte Carr, Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Green, told the inquiry it was not a matter for Pte Carr to seek out Pte Kovco to clear his weapon as part of the ‘‘buddy system’’.

‘‘Put simply, Pte Kovco’s actions prevented [Pte Carr] from witnessing Pte Kovco clear his weapon [because] Pte Kovco went ahead through the doorway and then physically held the door shut.’’

The inquiry heard that Pte Kovco had only one day of ‘‘on-the-job’’ training with the pistol; in June 2004.

Private Kovco’s widow Shelley is expected to make a statement about her husband’s shooting before the inquiry closes this week. Once the board has heard closing submissions, a report will be prepared for the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston. ACM Houston, who set up the inquiry, will then review the board's findings before releasing the report.

 
 
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JAKE'S MATES NOT TO BLAME FOR DEATH OR BLUNDER

 
 

Kovco widow blasts top brass

Wednesday, September 20 

AN emotional Shelley Kovco broke down in tears yesterday as she spoke of her heartache and anger at her husband’s death, and the debacles that followed.

Mrs Kovco made her submission on the last day of the board of inquiry into the mystery shooting of Private Jake Kovco, which yesterday ruled out suicide. She placed the blame for the repeated insults to her husband’s memory on Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson and the Australian Defence Force bureaucracy.

‘‘I would also like to say how sick I am of hearing sorry for these mistakes,’’ she said. ‘‘Sorry doesn’t cut it after the first time.’’

Mrs Kovco said it was not at her request that the Australian Defence Force tried to repatriate his body as quickly as possible, and that he should never had gone through the indignity of the bungled repatriation in which a Bosnian labourer's body was flown to Australia instead.

"The ADF and the government thought it would look good to have Jake back in the country on Anzac Day,'' she said.

"I just wish he'd [Australian Consul official Alistair Adams] stand up and say that he stuffed up."

Inquiry president Group Captain Warren Cook said that suicide would in no way figure in the board’s reasoning, which is expected to take at least six weeks. "I don't think the word 'suicide' figures in our reasoning whatsoever,'' he told the inquiry.

What really happened in Pte Kovco’s Baghdad barracks on April 21 has divided the two sides of his family. 

Mrs Kovco gave unwavering support to her husband’s mates and laid no blame on any of his platoon members for the shooting or the bungled repatriation.

That is in stark contrast to Pte Kovco’s parents, who believe one of his friends must be hiding some information that could reveal the truth.

‘‘They were all great mates and there is no way in the world they would have done this,’’ Mrs Kovco said. ‘‘It was a horrible accident and I know Jake would give anything and everything in the world to be here with the kids and me today.’’

Counsel representing parents Judy and Martin Kovco, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Holles, said the incompetence of military police and unreliable witnesses meant they would never know why he died.

"In summary, the interplay of the actions of the military police and the concerns about the reliability of the evidence from a number of eyewitnesses places Judy and Martin Kovco and their family in a situation where they don't know what happened to their son Jake and, absent of some further development, are not likely to know what happened to their son Jake,'' Lt Col Holles said.

"It is that uncertainty which causes them the most distress and that uncertainty regrettably can be sheeted home at least in part to the wanton unprofessionalism of the SIB (special investigations branch of the military police).

"All that I ask on behalf of Judy and Martin Kovco and their family is that the board's report highlights those aspects of the systemic failures so that never again will families of ADF (Australian Defence Force) members be placed in the position that they are placed in.''

Pte Kovco’s father-in-law David Small told the inquiry he was close to ‘‘physical contact’’ with Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson after Pte Kovco’s body was misplaced. He said there was no rift between the two families but just small differences of opinion. ‘‘We won’t go into it, we just all think slightly differently on different things,’’ he said.

Counsel representing Pte Kovco, Colonel Les Young, has called for Sergeant Colin Hoekstra, who escorted the body back to Australia, be referred to the military police for further investigation. He also called on police to investigate whether broadcaster Derryn Hinch received stolen property when he was given a draft report on the failed repatriation.

 
 
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"I don't think I'll ever know exactly what happened in that room"

 
 

SHELLEY Kovco vowed to carry out the final wish of her husband Private Jake Kovco, who will forever remain at her side.

Friday, September 22

SHELLEY Kovco yesterday vowed to carry out the final wish of her husband Private Jake Kovco, who will forever remain at her side.

With his portrait tattooed on her upper left arm, Shelley Kovco told of her determination to raise children Tyrie, 4, and Alana, 1, the way their father wanted - starting with a family holiday to the Gold Coast.

Mrs Kovco said she would start the family's new life by taking the children to Movie World to meet Shrek, as Pte Kovco had planned before being fatally shot in his Baghdad barracks in April this year.

Speaking after the inquiry into the mystery death ended this week, Mrs Kovco expressed relief that suicide had been ruled out but said any findings handed down would hold little meaning as it was impossible to find closure.

"Whatever answer comes out at the end isn't going to bring Jake home," she said. "I don't think I'll ever know exactly what happened in that room I guess until I catch up with Jake, which hopefully isn't going to be for a bloody long time."

Mrs Kovco believes he simply slipped while taking the pistol out of its holster to unload it. She does not believe any information was hidden by Pte Kovco's roommates, who are so close she considers them as family.

The parents of both Pte Kovco and Mrs Kovco have said the families had different views as to what exactly happened on April 21 and who was responsible. But Mrs Kovco said it had not caused a rift between the two families.

"I've lived away with Jake and we've been in the army, whereas my family and his family haven't been there so they don't know that relationship between us all," she said.

For her, Pte Kovco's death was a tragic accident like those of Steve Irwin and Peter Brock. She would have no apprehension about little Tyrie growing up and following his father's footsteps into the army.

"I'd tell them to go for it, be proud of what they do and that daddy would be very proud.

"In recent weeks we've lost two other people who were highly qualified in what they were doing and it just goes to show that accidents can happen no matter what you do."

Now the inquiry is over, Mrs Kovco hopes to return to a quiet life in rural Victoria and concentrate on keeping Pte Kovco's memory alive for the children. She will use Pte Kovco's birthday next Tuesday as a chance to pack up, drive somewhere private and talk to Tyrie and Alana about their father.

"I've done it pretty much since the day he left for Iraq - talked about him, talked to photos, we look at the stars.

"Unfortunately, she's (Alana's) not going to have the memories of him unless I give them to her.

"I just want to go home and get on with my life without opening a paper and hearing some story about what I've been doing or what's now come up with Jake and just try and give my kids a good life and myself try to be happy somehow."

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