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Jacob (Jake) Bruce Kovco (25 September 1980, Melbourne – 21 April 2006, Baghdad) was a Private (PTE) in the Australian Army who died while deployed in Iraq, fatally wounded by a single shot to the head from his own Browning 9mm sidearm. PTE Kovco was the first Australian soldier to die while deployed to the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO). A military inquiry found that Kovco accidentally shot himself while mishandling his pistol, a conclusion which was disputed by his family. On 2 April 2008, a further Coronial inquest returned a similar verdict, finding that Kovco's death was "irresponsibly self-inflicted", and that when he pulled the trigger on his weapon he "disregarded the possible consequences of danger".
Pte Kovco grew up in Briagolong and completed the Victoria Certificate of Education at Maffra Secondary College in 1998. Prior to enlisting in the army, Kovco worked in a knackery processing dead livestock. He was a keen mountain bike rider and also raced motorcycles. He was married to Shelley and they had 2 children, Tyrie and Alana
Kovco enlisted in the Australian Regular Army in March 2002 and was posted to the School of Infantry, Singleton, in May 2002. After completing his Initial Employment Training as a rifleman, he served in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), Australia's airborne battalion (the only other Royal Australian Infantry Corps Regiment cleared for airborne operations is the Second Commando Regiment, Formally the 4th Royal Australian Regiment). After posted to 3RAR, he was trained as a heavy weapons operator before training to become a sniper.
PTE Kovco was deployed to Iraq as part of an ongoing 110-person Security Detachment Iraq protecting Australian officials at the embassy in Baghdad.
PTE Kovco died from a single bullet wound to the head. The incident occurred in the accommodation barracks he shared with two other soldiers, shortly after he returned from an observation duty. Kovco was moved to a nearby US military hospital immediately after the incident but was announced dead on arrival.
It was initially reported by Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson that PTE Kovco had shot himself accidentally while cleaning his weapon, a Browning Hi-Power Mk. III pistol. This story was later changed to suggest the pistol discharged spontaneously. These explanations conflict with standard weapons handling procedures for ADF personnel on deployment, which require all weapons to be unloaded upon entering the perimeter of a fortified barracks such as PTE Kovco's. The possibility of the pistol discharging by itself was discredited by the former head of Australia's military, General Peter Cosgrove, when asked on radio whether he had seen a pistol such as Private Kovco's self-discharge during his 40 years of military service, he replied, "Weapons tend not to self-detonate."
- "[H]e might not have been actually handling the weapon but it was very close to him," "There was obviously a live round in it, which there should not have been," "He was doing something other than handling his firearm and in the process of fiddling about with the other equipment he had, it would appear that in some way he knocked the gun and it discharged," and "There is no suggestion it was anything other than an accident."
In a Media Release of 29 April, Defence Minister Dr. Brendan Nelson asked for speculation on the death to cease, stating "I think what's most important now is that Australians appreciate that speculation, much of which is wild and ill-informed, is as unhelpful to getting to the bottom of the death of PTE Kovco as it is hurtful to the family."
Chief of Defence Force (CDF) Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston made a statement that two other soldiers (PTE Kovcos roommates) were in the room with PTE Kovco but "it appeared that neither of them was looking at PTE Kovco when the weapon discharged. Essentially when they looked up he had clearly been shot," he said.
Suggestions of suicide were vehemently rejected by PTE Kovco's mother, who suggested that senior military officials knew what happened to her son but refused to tell the truth. Although the ADF refused to respond officially pending inquiries, a "senior military source" made a statement that PTE Kovco was "emailing when the gun fired", and that it appeared that the computer had slipped off his lap and landed on the pistol, causing it to discharge.
The body of PTE Kovco was originally scheduled to be returned to Australia on Wednesday, 26 April, but his body was apparently misplaced during attempts to repatriate it to Melbourne, and the body of 47 year old Bosnian civilian contractor Juso Sinanovic was sent to Australia in its place — a mistake Brendan Nelson has blamed on a mortuary attached to the Al-Sabah General Hospital in Kuwait and the private contractor Kenyon International. However, Kenyon International, a privately owned company, was exonerated for any wrongdoing. According to the final report from the Military Board of Inquiry, Kenyon was contracted to repatriate the remains that were identified to Kenyon as PTE Kovco. At no stage was Kenyon International required to identify PTE Kovco. Warrant Officer Tim Cuming, Kovco's company sergeant major in Iraq, accompanied Kovco's body back to Australia. Warrant Officer Cuming has claimed privilege against self-incrimination during the coronial inquest into Kovco's fatal shooting, against allegations that he intimidated military witnesses prior to the military inquiry.
Sinanovic's death was investigated by Victorian coroner Graeme Johnstone, and his body was returned to Kuwait and the care of his former employers Kellogg, Brown and Root on 11 May. During this time his family were not contacted by Australian authorities. Continued delays in repatriating Sinanovic's body to his home village just outside Tuzla led to the involvement on 17 May of John Howard, who undertook to "see if there is anything we can do".
Shadow Defence spokesman Robert McClelland has said that it seems American personnel had transported Kovco's body via a US military mortuary and then on to the private mortuary, after it arrived in Kuwait on an Australian C130 Hercules. "There was some identification before the body was treated in the morgue but none when it came out, certainly contrary to what would be standard coronial procedures," he said.
Military Board of Inquiry
Because Kovco's battalion is based at Holsworthy, New South Wales, his widow asked that his body be returned to Australia from Kuwait via Sydney Airport, where it arrived around 7:00 a.m. on 29 April 2006. His coffin was met by Kovco's widow Shelley and his children, parents Judy and Martin and other family members plus an honour guard of three hundred 3RAR personnel in black armbands and dress uniform, Chief of Defence Force Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, Chief of Army Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, then Defence Minister Brendan Nelson and Australian Attorney-General Philip Ruddock. Kovco's family later formally identified his body at the mortuary in Glebe.
New South Wales Coroner John Abernethy, who will now "assume jurisdiction in relation to any inquiry into his identity, the date and place of his death and the manner and cause of his death", has organised for homicide investigators at the State Crime Command to coordinate the investigation with the army's special investigations branch. An autopsy conducted on Monday, 1 May determined the cause of death to have been a single bullet wound to the head. The shot left no powder burn, and passed straight through the soldier's body, close to his temple. The bullet itself was not passed to the coroner, and is apparently missing.
A military board of inquiry, headed by former NSW coroner Group Captain Warren Cook and including former Queensland police commissioner Jim O'Sullivan and Colonel Michael Charles, was established to be conducted out of Sydney's Victoria Barracks, and Brigadier Elizabeth Cosson, the most senior woman in the Army, was appointed to investigate the repatriation. (Cosson's team travelled to Kuwait on 30 April to investigate the circumstances which led to the "casket bungle".)
Coroner Abernethy was reported to have questioned Defence Minister Brendan Nelson on his three conflicting public statements about Kovco's death.
Military board of inquiry
The military board of inquiry led by Warren Cook convened to investigate issues surrounding both the death and the repatriation in Sydney on 19 June 2006. The opening statement of council assisting Colonel Michael Griffin—via video link from Baghdad—included the revelation that Kovco, on 21 March, just 14 days into his tour of duty, had dreamt of and written in his journal about his death by a shot to the head from his own pistol:
- "I dreamt I was sitting in our room (here) by myself and for some unknown reason I pulled out my 9 mm pistol and shot myself in the head!? I have no idea why but it seemed I wanted to see what it felt like." Kovco described hearing "the click of the hammer" as he shot himself, but he wrote, instead of a loud crack, "the sound went dull as the bullet entered my skull. It was like I could feel the bullet inside… a few seconds later I went limp and started gushing blood from the wounds, nose, ears and mouth. I then seemed to die and woke up and said, fuck, that hurts."
Kovco went on to write that same night that he was not suicidal, but believed the dream was a premonition. "I have no intention of shooting myself," he wrote. "I know it wasn't about killing myself so I'm a bit worried that it might be a premonition about a bullet hitting me in the head but not killing me."
According to PTE Ray Johnson, one of the two men with Kovco at the time of the shooting, "Dreams" by The Cranberries was playing on an mp3 player and Kovco stood at his bunk bed typing on his laptop while the men laughed and mimicked the lead singer Dolores O'Riordan. But the 23-year-old private did not see Kovco place his gun, which had been hanging holstered from the bed, to his head. In a written statement, PTE Johnson said:
- "I think he might have done it in a joking fashion. He may have pulled the pistol and put it to his head, almost to say, 'This is so gay I'd rather be dead'. [...] I have no evidence to support this theory and I didn't see PTE Kovco do it, but it is the only way I can explain how Pte Kovco shot himself."
On 1 December 2006, Defence chief Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston announced that the board of inquiry had determined that Kovco died as a result of the inappropriate handling of his personal weapon while engaging in skylarking behaviour.
PTE Kovco's mother, Judy Kovco, was dissatisfied with the report findings and sought an independent coronial inquiry.
A funeral service for the dead soldier was held on Tuesday, 2 May in the town hall of his home town of Briagolong, and was attended by several hundred mourners including the Prime Minister and Defence Minister, a large 3RAR presence led by its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mick Mumford, and a significant media contingent. Australian soldiers in Baghdad held a pre-dawn ceremony, led by Brigadier Paul Symon, to coincide with the funeral. Kovco was buried with full military honours, including a three-volley gun salute and flypast, at the Sale Cemetery later in the day.
There was some criticism of the addition of Kovco's name to the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on 11 November 2006. The former president of the New South Wales Vietnam Veterans Association, Barry Billing, criticised the inclusion on the grounds that Kovco did not die as a result of hostile action. The inclusion was consistent with standard practice, however, as the names of all members of the Australian military who have died as the result of service in a war zone are included on the Roll without regard to their cause of death.
Draft report misplaced
On 15 May 2006, a CD-ROM containing a confidential draft copy of the Defence Department's report detailing the body repatriation "bungle" was accidentally left in the drive of an airline lounge computer at Melbourne Airport by the investigating officer, Brigadier Elizabeth Cosson. Subsequently, Melbourne radio journalist Derryn Hinch, who claims to have received the CD from the person who found it, broadcast some of the details of the report:
- [Brigadier Cosson] said that "[T]he chain of custody was uncontrolled and vulnerable to failure, we can't find out who decided and we didn't know this was going to happen, that his body should be placed on a commercial flight" [...] And her words they, the military, "lost control, they lost contact with the body"
"I'm deeply embarrassed about it and I deeply regret the circumstances," Air Chief Marshal Houston told a conference on 17 May, and appealed to the media to treat the material sensitively.
The draft report appears to stop short of finding anyone at fault for the problems with Kovco's repatriation.
Following lobbying by Judy Kovco, a Coronial inquest was opened 11 February 2008 and held at the Glebe Coroner's Court. After hearing 8 weeks of evidence, including controversial elements of Kovco's personal history that it was thought may have influenced his death, the Coronial Jury found that it could not determine Kovco's state of mind or whether he knew the weapon was loaded, but that "on the balance of probabilities", it was likely that he had not intended to take his own life.
Before the verdict was rendered, counsel assisting the coroner, John Agius, SC, told the jury that the theory that Kovco had been shot by another soldier was "no more than the last grasp of a loving mother who cannot bring herself to accept that her son was less than perfect".
Although numerous witnesses were excused from those originally summoned, the coronial inquiry ran longer than initially slated due to the re-ordering of witnesses and the possible recall of several witnesses late in the inquiry. A request was made by legal counsel representing Kovco's parents to recall several witnesses after the questioning of Warrant Officer Tim Cuming, Kovco's company sergeant major in Iraq. A report submitted as evidence by Major Kyle Tyrell stated that several soldiers had made allegations that WO Cuming had intimidated them and attempted to influence their evidence prior to the military board of inquiry. When asked several questions regarding these allegations, Warrant Officer Cuming said " I claim privilege against self-incrimination". Requests by legal counsel to recall witnesses who were potentially affected by WO Cuming's actions were denied.
The coronial inquiry concluded on 2 April 2008.
- Coroner's Court of NSW, "Jake Kovko finding"
- Chantal Rumble and Brendan Nicholson, Mates remember the boy who grew up to be a soldier, The Age, 24 April 2006
- Dead digger was elite sniper, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 2006
- Linda Souter, Military probes soldier's death, Townsville Bulletin, 24 April 2006
- Kovco wasn't cleaning gun: Nelson, Adelaide Advertiser, 27 April 2006
- Cynthia Banham and Tom Allard, Mystery of Private Kovco's pistol, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 2006
- Alexandra Kirk, PM assures Kovco family no cover-up in place, The World Today, 28 April 2006
- Defence to investigate body bungle, ABC News Online, 27 April 2006
- Australian sent wrong Iraq body, 27 April 2006
- Confusion adds to grief and pain, The Age, 27 April 2006
- PRIVATE JAKE KOVCO, The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson, Minister for Defence, Media Release 29 April 2006
- Houston appoints Kovco inquiry chief, NineMSN, 27 April 2006
- Kovco was emailing when gun fired, The Age, 29 April 2006
- Dan Box, Officer 'intimidated' Kovco witnesses
- Michael Davis and Peter Wilson, Bosnian's body goes home at last, 12 May 2006
- PM moves to help body mix-up family, ABC News Online, 17 May 2006
- Bungle may affect Kovco death probe, ABC News Online, 29 April 2006
- "Dignity at last for Private Kovco", The Age, 30 April 2006
- Stuart Rintoul and Nick Leys, Homicide police probe soldier's death, The Australian, 29 April 2006
- Les Kennedy, Grilling on Kovco death, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 May 2006
- http://www.dailytelegraph.news.com.au/story/0,20281,18997884-5001028,00.html, The Daily Telegraph, 2 May 2006
- Board set up to probe Kovco death, News.com.au, 29 April 2006
- "Inquiry hears Kovco dreamt of his own death", ABC News Online, 19 June 2006
- Chilling premonition in soldier's journal, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 2006
- "Joke linked to Kovco's death: inquiry", The Age, 20 June 2006
- "Kovco died in 'gun bungle'", The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December 2006
- "Kovco death a lark gone wrong" The Age, Melbourne, 2 December 2006
- Hundreds farewell Private Kovco, ABC News Online, 2 May 2006
- Veteran's Kovco comments 'outrageous', The Age, 13 November 2006
- Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour Introduction - Eligibility. Accessed 20 January 2007.
- Kovco's family condemns latest bungle, ABC News Online, 17 May 2006
- "Defence appeals to Hinch after losing Kovco report", ABC News Online, 17 May 2006
- "ADF apologises over another Kovco bungle", AAP, 17 May 2006
- Kovco coronial inquest starts - SBS World News Australia
- Kovco death 'self-inflicted, reckless'
- Jury finds Kovco death accidental - National - theage.com.au