David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Wounded soldiers put at risk

Bosses more concerned with economy and look than medical need: report

Injured soldiers Private Allister Baker (pictured) and Lance Corporal Matthew Ball arrived with the body of Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell. Photo / NZPA
Injured soldiers Private Allister Baker (pictured) and Lance Corporal Matthew Ball arrived with the body of Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell. Photo / NZPA

The health of two wounded soldiers was placed at risk by Defence bosses who decided to fly them back to New Zealand with their killed comrade because it was cheaper than other options and a good public relations look, according to an official report.

The inquiry into the first combat death of a New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan found the decision to bring home the wounded "with the greatest economy or effort and resources" was promoted by "the desire to present a positive public affairs statement". Doing so "appears to have compromised the most effective, comfortable and safest options for patient care".

The report told Defence bosses factors including "cost" and "convenience" should be secondary to "best medical practice".

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman refused to comment, directing queries to the New Zealand Defence Force. A spokesman said getting the men to their families was the "overriding imperative" for using the 757 - a factor not mentioned in the report.

Private Allister Baker and Corporal Matthew Ball had burn, laceration and impact injuries from the ambush which killed Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell on August 3, 2010 at a remote outlying area near Bamyan, Afghanistan. He was the first New Zealand soldier to die in the Kiwi-controlled area.

They were returned to New Zealand together after Prime Minister John Key announced the Royal New Zealand Air Force 757 would be diverted to bring them home.

The Court of Inquiry report - released last year but re-examined in a Herald inquiry into military safety - detailed the flawed decision to fly the wounded men home with Mr O'Donnell. The report stated there was "higher level direction" that "if possible the deceased and the casualties should [return to New Zealand] on the same aircraft". The decision to do so was based on inaccurate information about the men's medical conditions and the mistaken assumption by United States forces that a plane fully kitted with medical equipment was coming to collect the men. It introduced an "unknown risk which was undesirable".

The wounded men were originally being sent in a medical evacuation to a US military hospital in Germany, where coalition forces are treated by some of the world's best surgeons.

Instead, the men were flown out of Afghanistan on a coalition forces C-17 and met in the Middle East by the RNZAF 757. Both men had their injuries checked while on stretchers on the tarmac because no arrangement had been made to use coalition medical facilities. The report notes the generosity of those clinics which gave the NZ medics "medical stores" with which they treated the soldiers.

They were then helped on foot on to the 757, which was not kitted out for medical transfers, where they were cared for by medical staff flown in on economy class seats - meaning they went on to complete a 40-hour shift on the 757 and "were not sufficiently rested to deal with possible medical issues that could have arisen".

The seating affected the ability of medical staff to treat them properly. The report found there was a belief it was in the best interests of the wounded soldiers to return them as quickly as possible so they could go to their team leader's funeral. It said there was "also pressure from HQ NZDF" - the Defence Force command - which "did create a potential risk to the standard of medical care".

The report found "the desire to present a positive public affairs statement by bringing home the deceased and the casualties appears to have compromised the most effective, comfortable and safest options for patient care".

It stated the wounded were included on the flight because of the "desire of strategic leadership in NZ" to bring the three solders back quickly "with the greatest economy or effort and resources".

Mr Baker's mother Debbie said yesterday she was unhappy a good PR image had any bearing on her son's health care.

"I would have liked to have seen him get the most specialist, best care, in the world. I'd like to think that wasn't the main decision why they came back like that. This is what the report seems to pick up on. There were things that could definitely be improved on. They are improving on things."

She also praised the army for the way it dealt with the families during the period and said she was confident any flaws were being addressed. She said she had told the army that she wanted her son back as soon as possible. She said her son had told her he and Mr Ball had wanted to come home with Mr O'Donnell's body.


What the report said

• Two wounded New Zealand soldiers were brought home from Afghanistan on an Air Force 757 which was not properly equipped for their medical care.

• The decision from a "higher level direction" was based on cost and presenting a positive public relations image.

• It created an undesirable risk to the men's health.

- NZ Herald

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