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Failures of Command: Foreword

Foreword by Ian McPhedran

I first met Hugh and Janny Poate in early 2013, just a few months after their only son Robbie had been murdered in cold blood in Afghanistan by Taliban sleeper and Afghan National Army Sergeant Hekmatullah in a so-called ‘green on blue’ incident.

I reported extensively on the tragic deaths of Private Robert Poate and his two comrades Lance Corporal Rick Milosevic and Sapper James Martin and on Hugh Poate’s quest for a civilian coronial inquiry into the deaths. The Australian Defence Force investigating and clearing itself was never going to cut it for this determined father who led the push that forced the Australian Army into the first civilian coronial inquiry of its 120-year history.

As an experienced former public servant Hugh Poate understands exactly how the bureaucracy works and despite the best efforts of some senior military officers to pressure him from the path he never wavered. He remains determined that the mistakes uncovered by Queensland Deputy State Coroner John Lock – and there were many as you will read in these pages – would not lead to the needless death of anyone else’s precious child.

Hugh’s compelling and painstakingly researched book is more than the story of the terrible loss of a much-loved son. It is also a surgical, skilled exposé of some deep flaws in Australia’s military command structure and the military justice system. It brings to light serious incompetence and raises some fundamental issues confronting senior leaders of the Australian Army and the Australian Defence Force.

Some of the most disturbing passages expose what appear to be clumsy and shameless attempts to intimidate or coerce the next of kin of the three dead soldiers. From day one these courageous family members not only stood up to the pressure, but also refused to be diverted from the search for truth and justice.

The coronial inquiry publicly exposed many facts that the army tried to hide including an order known as FRAGO 13 that had been issued by the International force commander General John Allen just 16 days before the fatal insider attack. The order, which was at best downplayed by senior Australian commanders and redacted in copies of the military Inquiry Officer’s Report into the tragedy, specifically warned of the increased risk of such attacks and the need to upgrade security to mitigate the threat.

Incredibly, only a Major, a Lieutenant and a Sergeant were sanctioned following the murders (mainly for failing to enforce dress codes) and all three were later cleared by the then Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison.

Despite Deputy State Coroner Lock’s damning findings, the then defence chief Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin and then army boss Lieutenant General Angus Campbell expressed ‘confidence in the leadership and actions of the members involved in this tragic incident’.

I challenge any reader to share the chiefs’ view after they have finished reading Failures of Command.

Hugh Poate is driven by a deep and abiding responsibility to warn other families of serving or would-be soldiers about some of the dangerous realities of that honourable, but in many ways, flawed calling.

His book is a must-read for anyone with a loved one in the military or anyone contemplating or serving in the Australian Defence Force. Above all, it places the military’s top brass on notice.

Hugh Poate's book Failures of Command: The death of Private Robert Poate will be published by NewSouth in April 2021.

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