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Senate inquiry into deaths of military personnel will hear evidence from families.

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Wednesday 11 February 2004

Senate inquiry into deaths of military personnel will hear evidence from families


TONY EASTLEY: The recruitment advertisements for the military portray young, optimistic Australians with high job satisfaction levels, but for too many recruits their time in the Defence Forces is anything but happy.  


The Australian military's record of handling bullying, abuse, racism, suicide and accidental death is under scrutiny. 


A string of military families have come forward to tell their stories about how their loved ones were treated and they accuse the military of failing to properly investigate their deaths. 


A Senate inquiry into the military justice system is preparing to hear their evidence. 


Matt Brown reports from Canberra. 


MATT BROWN: The first time Donna Palmer knew that her 19-year-old soldier son Damien was in trouble, it was too late.  


DONNA PALMER: There was a knock on the door and there was a Major and Padre standing there. They just said "are you Damien Palmer's mother?" and I said "yes" and they said he was found hanged in his room this morning.  


MATT BROWN: Shortly before he hanged himself, in October 1999, Damien Palmer, an Aborigine, had failed an important test. But later signs emerged that he'd been bullied and subjected to racism. 


DONNA PALMER: He was singled out by an instructor. He was told that he wouldn't be receiving any government handouts here, and he was only there because he was black, and not to expect any special treatment at all. 


MATT BROWN: The Defence Force does have programs about the challenges faced by many Indigenous people and new recruits in general, but Donna Palmer says they've not gone far enough. 


DONNA PALMER: On the night that he did die, that afternoon, he did try to hang himself earlier. He told another recruit that. He'd been drinking heavily. The person on his second enlistment left him to go to bed and told Damien, you know, to sleep it off, sort of thing. Now I'm not blaming him, but I mean, they teach them to shine their shoes but they don't teach them how to deal with someone in crisis. Eighty per cent of people tell someone of intent to suicide before they actually complete it.  


MATT BROWN: Mrs Palmer is hoping the current Senate Inquiry will lead to real change.  


DONNA PALMER: He was just my hero and I just, you know, I've lost him, basically. I'm trying to do my best for the next person that goes through, and I tried for four years, you know, to get them to do something and now there's an inquiry, thank God.  


MATT BROWN: The slew of submissions received so far by the Senate Committee investigating the military justice system make gruelling reading.  


Labor's Defence Spokesman, Chris Evans, says that in many instances the Australian Defence Force has left key questions unanswered. 


CHRIS EVANS: In a number of occasions they've been very easy on themselves, they fail to get to the bottom of the issues involved, and what most concerns me is that after these deaths we haven't seen systems changed to ensure it doesn't happen again.  


MATT BROWN: The Minister for Defence Personnel, Mal Brough, says the Defence Force has been improving the way it investigates these tragedies. 


MAL BROUGH: The Government and Defence, you know, understand that these are very sensitive issues, very tragic events, and as such we will do whatever we can to try and alleviate some of the pain that families feel. 


MATT BROWN: But bereaved families keep being left with too many troubling questions and confusion on top of their pain.  


Rosa Satatas still doesn't know all the facts about how her son died just before the war in Iraq. 


ROSA SATATAS: John seems happy most of the times when he was in the military. He loves the Army. 


MATT BROWN: After John Satatas was found hanged from a tree, his mother discovered a racial epithet had been scrawled on her son's skin.  


ROSA SATATAS: He's got scribble all over, you know, there was writing on his arm and on his face. 


MATT BROWN: Mrs Satatas says the family's been given conflicting details about her son's death. They're worried he'd been bullied. They've been left suspicious of the circumstances and unable to understand what occurred.  


ROSA SATATAS: I hope that they manage to think different ways so I don't want any mother to go through the way I went through, to suffer what I have suffered, not just me, a mother, but my husband and my son's brothers. They, still today we don't understand, because he would never do such a thing. He know he was loved, and he loved us very much.  


TONY EASTLEY: Rosa Satatas, and that report from Matt Brown.