Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is an APNZ news reporter based in Wellington.

Injured brothers take battle back to Parliament

Former soldier Damien Nepata, displaying the burn injuries he received in a petrol explosion while serving in the NZ Army. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former soldier Damien Nepata, displaying the burn injuries he received in a petrol explosion while serving in the NZ Army. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Two brothers who suffered horrific injuries in separate army training accidents could be nearing the end of their two-decade battle for compensation.

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman today said he was keeping an open mind about whether the Government would pay compensation to former soldiers Damien and George Nepata - and a decision could be made within weeks.

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

The accident came 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 the soldiers who were carrying him up a slope on a stretcher.

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

A select committee inquiry in 2003 found the men had received the "bare minimum'' and deserved compensation above their legal entitlements.

But the Government at the time said there was no legal basis for compensation in addition to the ACC they received.

Damien Nepata, who is continuing to petition for compensation, made a short but emotional appearance before Parliament's Maori affairs select committee today.

He said the road to recovery had been extremely difficult, and it would have been made "a hell of a lot easier'' with compensation.

"At the end of the day, that's all we wanted. Support is nice, but some meaningful advocacy and some meaningful actions behind words is all we were looking for, and it's all we still are looking for.

"And not just for us, but for every soldier, sailor and airman - every person that works for their country that comes after us.''

Mr Nepata said for eight years he had to live on 80 per cent of his salary, about $300 a week, before he was able to return to work.

His brother had been through huge psychological trauma and even had to pay for his own wheelchair, but had managed to raise a family, including a daughter who was now in the air force.

Maori Affairs committee chairman Tau Henare said the committee was likely to recommend compensation for the brothers - and he would personally urge Dr Coleman to consider the men's case.

"I think that somebody needs to go in to bat for these brothers.''

Dr Coleman said he had asked his officials for a full report on the men's injuries and compensation. He would also consider the views of the committee.

"I'm approaching it with an open mind. I have enormous sympathy for the impact these injuries have had on their lives, and we want to make sure that they've been treated lawfully and fairly.''

Dr Coleman said he did not want to put a timeline on any decision, but it could be within weeks.

"They've been waiting over 20 years now, so we just want to wait and get all the facts. I'm not making any commitments at this stage, but I've asked the officials for advice.''

Asked if a pay-out would set a precedent, Dr Coleman said a number of factors had to be taken into account.

"The bottom line is these guys have to be treated fairly.''

Defence Force Chief of Personnel Brigadier Howard Duffy said the army was very sympathetic to the brothers.

"I've been in the army for 30 years and never, ever heard of two tragedies like that happening to siblings.''

But he said there was no legal basis for extra compensation, and any more pay-outs would have to be made ex gratia - which was a matter for the Government.

If an ex gratia payment was made, it could set a precedent for 31 other cases of Defence Force personnel who have received ACC compensation of $50,000 or more since 2000 - and there could be more cases dating back to 1974.

- APNZ

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