Soldier's death inquiry finds faults in training

By Derek Cheng

Tim O'Donnell. Photo / Supplied
Tim O'Donnell. Photo / Supplied

The response of the New Zealand patrol in Afghanistan that was ambushed last year - resulting in the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell, the first NZ Defence Force soldier to die in Afghanistan - has been praised for its professionalism and bravery by an independent Court of Inquiry.

But the inquiry found some deficiencies in training to cope with the hostile terrain in Bamyan province, and that the 757 that transported the body of Lt O'Donnell and the injured home was not properly configured and could have compromised their care.

Chief of Defence Force Lt General Rhys Jones said the PRT team in Bamyan was a humanitarian effort in a conflict zone.

"We can't avoid the reality of the probablity of deaths occuring in operations."

He said the lessons learned from the inquiry may not have prevented the death of Lt O'Donnell.

The inquiry made 69 recommendations, and the army has made several major changes, including using Light Armoured Vehicles as the lead vehicle in a convoy.

Lt O'Donnell's uncle, Barry O'Donnell, said the past year had been very tough for the immediate family.

"A tragedy is always very difficult to get over."

"Tim's death would have occurred regardless of whether any of those recommendations had been put in place before this event occurred. The issues about training and weapons systems would not have prevented the ambush.

"With an ambush, how do you actually train and plan for an event so unexpected? If the enemy is determined to take you out and you're in their terrain, you're in a very bad place."

The inquiry report, released today, found that Lt O'Donnell died instantly when a massive explosion struck the vehicle he and other soldiers were travelling in on August 3 last year, about 430pm.

Lt O'Donnell was part of a routine patrol delivering supplies when it was ambushed by insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.

Three others in the leading vehicle - Lance Corporal Matthew Ball and Private Allister Baker and an Afghan interpreter - were seriously wounded.

They were in the humvee that was leading the four-vehicle patrol through a mountainous canyon, near Ish Pesta township, when they had to make a detour because the road was washed out.

As the lead vehicle moved into a hairpin, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off, "immediately immobilising that vehicle, injuring all those in it, and causing it to catch fire".

Insurgents opened fire at the same time, repeatedly hitting all vehicles. The lead vehicle was struck five to seven times by rocket-propelled grenades for about 15 minutes.

The three injured people in the humvee managed to free themselves and take cover in a nearby dry stream bed, as the rest of the patrol returned fire and sent for back-up.
Under heavy fire, some members of the patrol managed to retrieve the injured, using another humvee as a shield.

The insurgents fled by the time members of the Afghan National Police arrived.

The ambulance did not arrive back to the Provincial Reconstruction Team base until 3am the next morning, driving over difficult terrain. A flight with the casualties left for Bagram at 7pm. They were eventually transferred to an airforce 757, which took them back to New Zealand.

Major-General Dave Gawn, Commander Joint Forces, said it was a well-executed ambush, and more casualties were avoided due to the training and leadership of Lt O'Donnell and the actions of the patrol.

The inquiry, which interviewed 59 witnesses, found that the attack was an "opportunity attack", which would have occurred regardless. The patrol was adequately trained and responded well to the crisis. Those involved - particularly Kiwi Team 2, in the lead humvee - had showed "commendable professionalism".

Bravery awards for soldiers have been recommended and the Government is currently considering them.

But the court found the indoctrination in-theatre training available only in Afghanistan had been "constrained by time and was not in sufficient depth or breadth".

"Deficiencies as to training on specific items of equipment were noted," the report said.

It also found that the airforce 757 was not properly configured and "compromised the care that could have been given to the casualties".

It made 69 recommendations, including a review to ensure that the proper in-theatre training took place.

In response, Major-General Gawn said this was not always possible to do in New Zealand, given that the equipment is often not available.

While he accepted the 757 was not ideal, the decision to use it was based on a misunderstanding between the NZDF and US medical authorities.

It was not always possible to have the ideal transport, he said.

"The decision to carry wounded or not will be a risk management one based on the nature of the injuries, the medical support available, and the aircraft configuration."

Eighteen major changes have been implemented, partially because of the findings of the inquiry, including using Light Armoured Vehicles, improved firepower and armour protection and upgraded weapons systems.

Since 2008, 10 IED incidents have occurred targeting the PRT team.


NZ Distinguished Service Decoration

NZ General Service Medal (Timor-Leste)

Timor-Leste Solidarity Medal (Timorese award)

NZ Operational Service Medal


NZ General Service Medal (Afghanistan)

NATO medal (Afghanistan)

- NZ Herald

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