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Report finds ADF insensitive towards bereaved families

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The World Today – Tuesday 27 April, 2004, 12:26:00

Reporter: Alexandra Kirk

TANYA NOLAN: A new report examining the deaths of members of the Australian Defence Forces has concluded that the military has been failing the families of those who have fallen in the service of their country.

The report reveals many families have felt obliged to sue the defence force, or go to the media, because they have been unable to obtain information from the military. It says in some cases grieving relatives have been prevented from attending memorials on military bases.

The report has been written by a former Australian Air Force Officer who interviewed the families’ soldiers killed on duty. The author, Kirstin Ferguson, now a Brisbane based lawyer has recommended a number of measures which could help grieving families.

Kirstin Ferguson spoke to Nick Grimm.

KIRSTIN FERGUSON: I guess I realised I was in a unique position in that I’m a former Air Force Officer and whilst I was in the Air Force, had a secondary duty as burials officer, so I’d had quite an exposure to service funerals, and certainly from the service perspective.

But subsequent to that I’ve now finished a law degree, and working with an Australian firm, and started to realise that a lot of what I had done previously and some of the systems that are in place now probably don’t work as well as they can, and I was very interested to know why so many widows or families felt the need to either go to the media or go to the Courts to try and get their issues addressed.

NICK GRIMM: Well, as you say, you had a unique perspective while you were performing the role of burials officer. What were you learning from the people that you spoke to?

KIRSTIN FERGUSON: Well certainly when I was in the Air Force, I had no real comprehension at the time of any of the issues I’m now aware of. You know, I fulfilled the duties that we were required and I think the services do a fantastic job at the technical aspects of organising a funeral, and anyone who’s been to a military funeral will understand that.

NICK GRIMM: So it’s got the logistics under control?

KIRSTIN FERGUSON: Yeah, that’s right, and I think they still do that very well.

And what I’ve tried to differentiate in the report is, even now, for someone who’s killed while serving in the Defence Force for some… they die for some cause other than a service-related accident, so they die in a car accident or for health reasons – they military does an amazing job, and they deserve full credit for that.

I think what I’ve tried to focus on are those families that we hear from in the media is where their son or daughter or husband or wife have been killed in a service accident, or have committed suicide in the military.

NICK GRIMM: And that’s where you think the Defence Forces can do a better job?

KIRSTIN FERGUSON: I think so, and I think they’re certainly trying, but just the amount of media that you see from these families, and certainly the Senate Inquiry that’s going on now, and certainly I was in touch with about 50 families – not all in that situation, which is why it was good to be able to compare the results of how they were treated – but certainly for those families who are seeking very different kinds of answers to those whose son or daughter may have been killed in a car accident, they’re the families I’ve focused upon.

NICK GRIMM: So broadly speaking, what are those people saying to you?

KIRSTIN FERGUSON: Well, what they’re asking, quite naturally, is what killed my loved one? What happened, and are you going to investigate it, and am I going to be involved?

And the military does go and investigate it, but of course they do that within a very large bureaucracy, and I think sometimes, through – certainly no deliberate means on their part – families aren’t included as thoroughly as they might expect to be, and a lot of it’s managing expectations as well.

And so there becomes a feeling on the part of the family so they’re not being told everything, that there’s a conspiracy or whatever, that there’s something being hidden, and I don’t think that’s the case, but I think the lack of communication contributes to that.

NICK GRIMM: Is it just the case that a little bit more thought needs to be put into the feelings of the bereaved?

KIRSTIN FERGUSON: Yeah, I think that’s probably fair. I mean it’s um… in a lot of cases in the military especially, there may be no personal knowledge  of the families involved, or certainly of the person who’s died, and so it’s easy to become quite emotionally detached from the situation, and to not completely empathise with families who are waiting by the phone just for someone to ring and to give them a bit more information on what might have happened.

And they’re grieving … and obviously they’ll … they want to hear anything they can, so I do think that’s probably a pretty big element of it.

NICK GRIMM: Okay, so what can be done to rectify the problems?

KIRSTIN FERGUSON: I think communication is certainly the key, and that’s a bit of a cliché.

I talk a lot in the report about apologies and how effective they can be from a very early stage, with families, and not feeling afraid to apologise for someone’s loss.

And certainly there’s a lot of very simple things to be done to acknowledge the person who’s died, their service, whether it’s through a medallion or a certificate from the Prime Minister, or whatever. Certainly that occurs in the US.

And they … there’s a lot of very simple physical things that they do for their deceased which we don’t tend to do, and I think some of them – while it won’t solve all of the problems – could be quite helpful.

TANYA NOLAN: Former Australian Air Force Officer, Kirstin Ferguson, and a copy of her report ‘Support Strategies for Australian Defence Force Bereaved Families’ is now with the chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove.

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