Soldier battles for compensation

By Sam Hurley

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Napier man Damien Nepata suffered burns to 40 per cent of his body and his brother was paralysed in separate army accidents. Photo/Glenn Taylor
Napier man Damien Nepata suffered burns to 40 per cent of his body and his brother was paralysed in separate army accidents. Photo/Glenn Taylor

A Napier man denied compensation after suffering serious burns in an army training accident believes the soldiers' mantra of loyalty and brotherhood has been ignored during his rehabilitation.

Damien Nepata received burns to 40 per cent of his body when the Scorpion tank he was driving crashed, rolled and caught fire during a training exercise at Waiouru in July 1994.

Another crew member was killed in the subsequent explosion, while a good friend was also injured as he tried to pull him from the burning wreckage.

The crash came just five years after his brother was paralysed in an army training accident in Singapore. George Nepata broke his neck when he was dropped head-first by soldiers who were carrying him up a slope on a stretcher.

Both brothers received ACC payments and other entitlements, but have never been compensated by the Government.

A select committee inquiry in 2003 recognised the brothers' plight and said they deserved compensation above their legal entitlements. However, the Government at the time said there was no legal basis for compensation in addition to the ACC payments they had received.

Parliament's Maori affairs select committee recommended in June that ex-gratia payments for the brothers be authorised.

Last week, Defence Force Minister Jonathan Coleman said the brothers would receive no compensation from the Government.

Mr Coleman also said it was not possible to "distinguish between the Nepata brothers' situation and numerous others who had been injured in military service".

If an ex-gratia payment were made to the brothers, it could set a precedent for more than 30 other cases of Defence Force personnel who have received ACC compensation of $50,000 or more since 2000. There could be more cases, dating back to 1974.

But Mr Nepata responded that if the minister was worried about a "floodgate being opened" for the other cases, he was simply not acting on "ethics and morals".

"Is he actually saying that because so many people have been injured in the service of their country, and not adequately compensated or supported, we cannot afford to compensate these two brothers because of the likelihood we will need to compensate others?

"Surely, if there is basis for compensation, whether it is legal, ethical or moral, it should be addressed no matter what the cost."

The minister also said last week he had "huge sympathy" for the brothers and it was clear there had been no substantive changes to their case since the Cabinet considered the issue 10 years ago.

"I am not certain what the minister means by substantive changes to our case," Mr Nepata said.

"If it is legislative change, then he and his political party are the people in the position to make the required changes, that would enable a compensation payment or ex-gratia payment, not George and I.

"Has continuing to live our lives as best we can, rebuilding them from the ground up, been a disadvantage for us in respect of his decision to go against two select committee recommendations?"

He told Hawke's Bay Today that, despite the recent comments from the minister, he and his brother remained "optimistic" despite receiving only the "bare minimum" from ACC and the return of their superannuation contributions.

"As far as Defence Force benefits go, all George and I are entitled to is access to army leave centres.

"Hardly compensation for losing the use of your legs or of being burnt over 40 per cent of the body down to within millimetres of the bone.

"We didn't receive any Defence compensation because the accidents were not in a live field of operations.

"But the explosive ordnance section deals with live rounds and explosives on a daily basis and if something happened to them they wouldn't be compensated, which is just wrong."

The 41-year-old, who now works for New Zealand Customs, said the battle for compensation was about "getting what was right for George".

"He lost a career and lost the ability to have another career.

"When you join the army and do all the training, the mantra is don't worry and we will look after you, but that is simply not the case."

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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