By Bernard Orsman

Brigadier Roger Mortlock was wrong to cover up the accidental death of a soldier under his command, says a Vietnam veteran who faced a similar situation.

Major Evan Torrance, who dealt with the death under "friendly fire" of another New Zealand soldier, said wartime circumstances did not justify doing what was obviously wrong.

Major Torrance, now retired, and the Ex-Vietnam Services' Association yesterday expressed shock and dismay at the revelations of their close colleague.

The association's national president, Bas Nissen, said whispers of past incidents circulated at reunions, but nothing was ever said about Brigadier Mortlock, at the time a platoon commander, submitting a false report on the death of Lance-Corporal Malcolm Sutherland and the wounding of two other soldiers. He reported that the casualties were the result of an action with the Viet Cong.

"It was a very, very close company [Roger Mortlock] led and nothing went too unnoticed. That is why I'm surprised this thing has been covered up for so long."

A senior lecturer at the Military Studies Institute, Dr James Conner, said the
distinguished officer should not have lost his position as land commander of the Army.

"Brigadier Mortlock's integrity and service to New Zealand is exemplary and he still has much to offer the New Zealand Defence Force."

Although the incident was tragic for all concerned, it was a frequent occurrence for soldiers to be killed by accident or friendly fire in combat. Behaviour during and after the heat of the battle was often totally irrational, Dr Conner said.

Major Torrance said news of the cover-up came as a big surprise and was not the behaviour he would expect of the soldier he knew well.

Only 20 days before the death of Malcolm Sutherland, Major Torrance was the commanding officer of Whisky Company when two sections of the joint Anzac patrol opened fire on each other while pursuing Viet Cong troops. Private Thomas Cooper was killed and two other soldiers were seriously injured in the incident.

"The platoon commander and platoon sergeant ... had no hesitation about being up front and telling it the way it did happen."

Brigadier Mortlock, who on Friday publicly apologised for the anxiety and pain he had caused the Sutherland family, was refusing to talk to the media yesterday.