Sunday, August 27, 2006

A public relations coup gone awry?

April 21, 2006, Jake Kovco became the first Australian soldier to die on the ground in Iraq. Kovco died from a gun wound, his gun is thought to be the weapon, and it happened in his room (that he shared with two roommates) in the barricks of the Australian embassy. The rest is unclear and a military inquiry is currently ongoing to determine what happened and how. That much is known.

Why are things so unclear? Well, his two roommates, who were present at the time of the shooting, both assert that they didn't see the shooting. Jake Kovco leaves many behind including two children, his wife Shelley Kovco, and his parents Martin and Judy Kovco. Their loss and the loss of other family members as well as friends has resulted not just in the natural grief but also in frustration over the fact that so much is unknown.

Early on, a very obvious bungle (to put it mildly) took place when Jake Kovco's body was supposed to arrive in Australia but instead a the body of Bosnian carpenter Juso Sinanovic. How did that mix up happen?

Could the reason also be the reason that there was no effort to preserve forensic evidence? Jake Kovco's hands were not bagged to preserve traces of gun residue that would indicate whether or not he fired the gun. The room was cleaned, his clothes were discarded. People were allowed to remove items from the room. All of this despite orders and standard procedures.

As C.I. noted Friday:

Last Friday, a DNA witness, Michelle Franco, identified some of the DNA on Jake Kovco's gun as belonging to Soldier 14. [Again from last Friday: The Herald-Sun reports that only the DNA "on the pistol's slide" were ruled by expert Franco to be a direct match (DNA on the "trigger, hand grip and magazine" are believed, by Franco, to be Soldier 14's but are "not direct matches."] Soldier 14 has maintained that he did not touch Jake Kovco's pistol (and he's refused to be questioned by the NSW).
[. . .]

Stephanie Hales' testimony is characterized by the AAP as asserting that residue tests can not determine "whether Private Jake Kovco shot himself in Iraq or if someone else pulled the trigger" for a variety of reasons including the fact that Jake Kovco's "clothes . . . were destroyed," "the barracks room where PTE Kovco was shot was cleaned before NSW Police arrived in Baghdad to carry out their forensic tests," Jake Kovco's body was washed in a Kuwait morgue, Jake Kovco's hands were not wrapped "in paper bags" and the two roommates were allowed to shower and wash their clothing with no forensic tests being performed.

The military inquiry has seen contradictory testimony and efforts by some witnesses to point the finger. On Thursday, supposedly Brigadier Paul Symon was taking 'responsibilty.' It was a funny kind of responsibility, but then it was a funny kind of testimony.

Symon, who'd been the commander of the Australian forces in Iraq (and was still the commander when Jake Kovco died), took the stand to offer . . . well . . . tears.

It's not often that you hear of someone in charge of an entire military operation breaking down in public. And it might have been expected if he was crying for Kovco (he wasn't) or if he was crying about the horrors he'd seen (he wasn't). What made no sense was that an adult was crying in public because he had to read to the inquiry his "I screwed up" statement.

That's all the tears were about. Later, he would get a deserved tongue lashing from Judy Kovco when he referred to her son as "a piece of cargo." The tears weren't about Kovco, nor was he speaking of Kovco.

From his April 27th "I screwed up (maybe)" that brought him to tears while he was reciting it to the inquiry:

"If mistakes are found to be made . . . I accept responsibility for those mistakes. If mistakes have been made outside . . . I would expect their senior management to accept responsiblity in exactly the same manner. After all, someone has to take responsiblity for this dreadful mistake."

Someone should have to take responsibility. Symon didn't last Thursday when he instead cited "human emotions" and procedures as the cause. As the commanding officer, his refusal to own the blame that is his is shocking.

How did so many errors happen? From the destruction of evidence, to the use of private contractors to handle Jake Kovco's body (soldiers testified to the inquiry that they felt the mix up wouldn't have happened had the military not wanted to do things on the 'cheap' and removed Kovco from a US military facility), from the sending of another body to Australia in the place of Kovco and quite a bit more, it's clear that something was going on other than attempting to learn the truth or attempting to honor Jake Kovco.

While testifying, Tracy Ong reported, Symon was asked about the hurry in getting Jake Kovco home and Symon's response of, "I could see a certain poignancy in a good soldier being returned to the nation on Anzac Day."

Anzac Day is April 25th, it's a national holiday where Australians honor the fallen. The body they thought was Kovco arrived in Australia on April 26th. Had the investigators not attempted to do a thorough job (despite the lack of evidence thanks to a clean up), Kovco (or Juso Sinanovic) might have arrived back in Australia on April 25th.

What a public relations coups that would have been. As a nation prepared for Anzac Day, there could have been updates of "Jake Kovco's body is expected to arrive . . ." and "Kovoc, the first Australian soldier to die in Iraq will be arriving . . ." and "Jake Kovco has returned home today, Anzac Day, which seems somehow fitting . . ."

Wonderful p.r. Symon could have had it. And Symon loved his p.r. Only a month prior to Kovco's death, Symon played blindly optimistic when he swore to the press that a corner had been turned in Iraq and things were and would be improving.

Would such a man also use the death of Jake Kovco to score points with constituents? Symon admits that Anzac Day was on his mind, that it would "poignancy".

It appears the most honesty in Symon's testimony came when he referred to Jake Kovco as "a piece of cargo." It appears that's all Kovco was to Symon, cargo he needed to get shipped out in time to meet a deadline that would ensure favorable coverage in the press.

It's just a hypothesis and it could be wrong. However, by admitting to the "poignancy" factor, due to the fact that Symon's only tears were over himself and not Kovco, and by his noncompassionate reference to Jake Kovco as "a piece of cargo," indicators seem to suggest that far from being touched by the death of Jake Kovco, Symon was more interested in scoring some "poignant" press.

If the hypothesis is correct, that means that all the stress, all the questions, all the issues that have plagued the friends and family of Jake Kovco in addition to their grief, could have probably been avoided. That would mean that, were it not for a rush to get Kovco's body home for Anzac Day, the room he died in could have been preserved, others things could have been preserved as well, and proper tests could be done that would provide the inquiry with concrete answers.

Let's hope we're wrong because if the hypothesis is correct, Symon has added to and increased the stress and turmoil for the family and friends of Jake Kovco.
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