'Friendly fire': When soldiers survive war, but are massacred on the battleground of Army politics

Robert Ovadia, Opinion
Former Chief of the Army David Morrison was on Australia Day announced as the new Australian of the Year.

“Hi Rob, bad news from my front again as I’m back in hospital.”

It was the beginning of a text message I’d received the night before.

‘Hospital’ is where this man had been a number of times since 2013, with mental health issues. This time, though, it’s a ‘hospital hospital’.

“Cut through my wrist but I’m still here,” it continues.

“I’m currently listening to a guy who thinks he is God. All good.”

The 'PTSD wing' of a military hospital is a colourful place.

He is a former high-ranking officer in the Australian Army.

Having spoken to him for hours on the phone, and through many messages, he strikes me as a thoroughly decent man. He is respectful, polite, quietly spoken, measured. He lives up to the cliché of ‘an officer and a gentleman’ - the sort of man you want leading soldiers in our army.

He clearly adores his wife and his two children, yet even they are not compelling enough reasons to prevent him from slicing into his wrist with a blade in the early hours of January 26 – Australia Day.

“I let him get to me,” says the text message.

He’s talking about his former boss.

A few hours earlier, David Morrison had been announced as Australian of the Year – our highest civilian accolade – and it made this man want to kill himself. The injustice, he felt, was too great for him to bear.

Former army chief, Morrison, made a name for himself surfing a tidal wave of support for a brutally eloquent speech castigating men in the army who demean women.

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept,” he famously scowled through words written for him by someone else.

It made him famous. He became an enigma, the enfant terrible of the Australian Defence Force. He spoke at a United Nations conference alongside Angelina Jolie. He became a champion of feminism, the darling of those who swooned at the narrative of the feminist general and now he is our Australian of the Year. Some republicans even suggest he would make an ideal president of Australia, one day.

The Australian public had no idea about a sex scandal brewing in the Australian Army until General Morrison’s speech brought it to their attention in June, 2013. An army reservist warrant officer and former signaller, Hastings Fredrickson, had filmed himself having sex with a Melbourne woman, before emailing images to soldiers on the Defence Restricted Network. The images were shared around, accompanied by vulgar commentary. There were other emails too, disparaging women. The behaviour was deplorable and worthy of condemnation – the men themselves concede this.

The former officer, now lying in an ‘acute care’ hospital bed on suicide watch, was in the email chain but never commented on the vulgarity, nor did he spread the emails around. In fact, he was never even aware of their contents.

His crime was that, as a high-ranking officer, he did not sanction the participants. The standard he walked past, it would seem, was the standard he accepted, in spite of his insistence not to have even opened the emails.

He was shamed and asked why he should keep his job. He was identified as a participant in the Jedi Council sex scandal and shamed before the whole country. Six men were sacked. He narrowly escaped the hangman’s noose, but the blow to his dignity, reputation and integrity was so severe – as was his perceived lack of fairness - he spiralled into depression. It wasn’t at the shame of his own behaviour (he insists he had done nothing wrong). Rather, it was the sense of betrayal. The army he had served for decades with unquestioning loyalty, the hierarchy for whom he would literally sacrifice his life to serve, had turned on him. Not only was the loyalty not reciprocated, but he was used as political cannon fodder. He was the means to an end.

In a record of interview with Army investigators, behind closed doors, his inquisitor told him, “I don’t even know why we’re here.”

Yet, there they were.

I can tell you why. It was to prosecute the political agenda of a general compelled, strategically, to ‘take ownership’ of a scandal the Army had been working furiously to bury until it no longer could.

There is significant and compelling evidence to suggest David Morrison was aware of the Jedi Council scandal 11 months before his famous speech. In the interim, as police tried to investigate Australian soldiers, David Morrison’s Army did anything it could to thwart the investigation.

The ADF lied to police about the existence of evidence, telling detectives crucial emails no longer existed. When police were able to prove they did exist, they were told they could not have the emails on the basis of ‘national security’.

Once police cleared that hurdle too, investigators drove to Canberra to collect copies of what they were expecting to be thousands of pages of evidence. The ADF handed them 14 pages.

On another occasion, David Morrison’s Army told police they could not interview an important witness because he was stationed in Japan. Police asked if they could make contact and David Morrison’s Army told them he was not contactable. Police eventually did find the man – in Sydney, barely a few kilometres away from where Strike Force Civet was based. He told detectives David Morrison’s Army had not made contact with him and that he had never been to Japan.

There are emails between senior army officers as police kept pushing. From one colonel: ‘We have to close the loop on this.’

The issue was important enough for the ADF to be covering it up yet, according to our Australian of the Year, never important enough for his office to be advised what was happening (in spite of the evidence David Morrison’s office was told about the investigation on July 23, 2012).

The issue between police and David Morrison’s Army came to the boil in March, 2013, when police threatened to bring a team to ADF headquarters in Canberra to seize everything in the building under a court-ordered warrant - unless the ADF started cooperating.

It did start cooperating and, within a few weeks, grabbed the narrative by the throat by owning the hell out of how it all happened, led by army chief David Morrison’s first steps into the sun.

The day David Morrison published ‘that speech’ on YouTube and gave a press conference, he called it a joint NSW Police and Defence investigation, but neglected to tell Australians an important detail – the army had previously cleared every soldier of wrong-doing including the ringleader, Hastings Fredrickson.

Fredrickson was told he was to be sacked and lodged his discharge notice four days after the army chief’s press conference, but was subsequently told he’d have to wait.

“(My handler) said, ‘You’re not allowed to get out. General Morrison has to be seen to kick you out,” he says.

Why is that?

But let’s say none of this was the political exploitation of soldiers by a man to further his own agenda.

Even taken at his most sincere, that General Morrison was outraged by the treatment of women and wanted to make an example of these men, veterans in their thousands are signing a petition for him to rescind his Australian of the Year title.

Why is that?

Did these soldiers deserve to be punished? Of course they did and they agree. Their actions were reprehensible and vulgar.

One of the sacked soldiers tells me, “It's immoral and it's unjust. That poor girl."

Punished? Of course.

But paraded before the nation as pariahs?

There is no excuse for the mistreatment of women, either to their faces or behind their backs. Australian soldiers – all men – ought to be better than that.

There is NO excuse but, here, maybe there is a reason. There is a difference between the two words.

That a man’s sense of betrayal from the army he lived for should be felt so deeply he would want to kill himself shows extraordinary fanaticism. This is what the army does - it breeds fanaticism. Warriors have to be fanatical to do what they do. So let's examine the fanaticism of the men whose actions sparked the sex scandal in the first place.

These men are not trained to go to a debutantes’ ball. They are conditioned - physically, emotionally and mentally - to take lives and risk having their own taken. Some of the ‘Jedi Council’ were commandos. They know the look on another man's face as they are taking his life from him. They hear the screams of the dying. They make split second decisions on whether to pull that trigger, on whether the target is a viable one or possibly a civilian, knowing that any hesitation in their actions could result in their own death. They engage enemies on battlefields not knowing if the next bullet is for them and they do so with a pulse far more sedate than yours would be, or mine, because they’re professionals. This is what they are trained to do. They ignore compassion, ignore fear, ignore the danger to their own lives in combat and, in doing so, they have to deny a large part of their own humanity.

These men die hard, so they live hard. Their moral compass is sometimes broken. Their sense of humour pushes the boundaries of good taste. Their camaraderie is unrivalled and, in this instance, certainly misplaced. Of course they should have admonished Fredrickson for his actions, let alone goaded him on. But they’re trained to support each other fanatically too. This is how you think in an army where your lives are in each other’s hands.

“Got your back, brother. Got your back.”

From one of the sacked soldiers:

"We're conditioned a certain way, so you go to war and you take lives... to measure that against crass text, which is taken out of context... you can see why we're confused."

No excuse. But it’s a reason.

The courage some of the sacked individuals have offered our country is extraordinary, with exploits that on a movie screen we would cheer and call ‘heroic’. Yet Australian of the Year David Morrison took none of their service into account, or the rest of their character, as the zeitgeist that lined his resume became their epitaph.

These soldiers ought to have been sanctioned, demoted, counselled, fined, yelled at – but not treated as political pawns.

It’s why the highest ranking among them, who had served Australia for many years, wanted to kill himself – on Australia Day.

It is easy, in the context of ‘scandals’, to create cardboard cutout villains. ‘The Jedi Council’… it’s such an easily digested name. Disgusting men. Got what they deserved….

I’ll tell you about one of the men - Special Forces, several tours of Afghanistan, as tough as they come but, according to his family, a softie.

He played a prominent role in the Jedi affair. His comments were as vulgar as anyone’s – so bad, NSW Police charged him, although the charge was later dropped.

For years, he served his country, quietly. Nobody beyond the army community knew his name, or what he did – not even his family knew exactly what he did. He didn’t want to talk about it when he came home.

He won commendations, but never asked for recognition. His first encounter with public recognition for his actions came in the form of a knock on the door from a reporter. Me. He wasn’t home but his daughter answered. I did not want to tell her I was a reporter, fearing her father may not have explained what I was doing there. But as I was leaving, he arrived. His wife was with him. I asked for a private word.

The army would sack him three months later, along with Fredrickson, but only when Australian of the Year David Morrison was ready to capitalise on that media opportunity. What followed was another spiral into depression and sojourns at mental health facilities, just like the officer in the psych ward right now, just like another sacked army captain whose friend had to talk him into removing the barrel of a gun from his mouth.

“How could the Chief of Army do this to us….?"

So, he put his skills into the private sector but could never get past the betrayal. But he was doing his best for his family.

A man, a family friend, was his client on one job last August.

It was a thrill-seeking job, but it went wrong. The man was seconds from dying and the disgraced soldier had to make a decision.

He saved the man and, in doing so, killed himself. Such was the calibre of the man.

But maybe this wasn’t just about his character or selflessness or even about his courage. Perhaps, it’s because he was trained to be this way.

Soldiers call it a ‘conditioned response’, where you instinctively behave in a certain way.

Die hard, live hard.

It’s a well-worn cliché, but perhaps sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. Or, if you’re seeking a platform, maybe sometimes the good is convenient to ignore.

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