David Savage is writing a memoir. It is dedicated to the 12-year-old suicide bomber who tried to kill him.
The former Australian Federal Police officer, international war crimes investigator and AusAID worker has a sad affinity with the child whose bomb vest detonated a few minutes before noon on a dirt road outside the town of Chora, Afghanistan, on March 26, 2012.
Savage hasn’t forgiven the act. He has forgiven the child.
“Another victim of a terrible war,” the dedication reads. “Now in a better place.”
Savage returned to Australia with shrapnel in his limbs, buttocks and torso. For now, he has lost the ability to walk unaided, though he hopes to regain it.
As well as the mild brain injury he suffered from the blast’s pressure wave, he undergoes psychological counselling for trauma. He has struggled with the knowledge that traces of the child attacker’s body are embedded in his own.
Savage’s request for medical support and compensation was batted around governments for seven years. Now that an agreement has been reached, his story can finally be told.
David Savage’s case went back and forth between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, his employer in Afghanistan; the Department of Defence, which had required he be designated a “defence civilian” and subject to Australian Defence Force discipline but distanced itself from his security; and the Department of Finance, which finally signed off on a payment this year, contributing towards past and future costs.
The payment was classed as an “act of grace” – one made when there’s no act of parliament that clearly determines a person’s entitlement to receive support but where special circumstances create a moral obligation.
A separate settlement with Comcare, for which David and his wife, Sandra, had to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, relates to ongoing medical treatment and the care David still requires.
Minister after minister has posed for photographs alongside Savage, the only Australian civilian wounded during the Afghanistan war. None of them did anything to significantly expedite the process of securing ongoing support in return for the service he gave to his country.
The ADF leadership has considered Savage not to be their problem. Had he been a member of the ADF, things would have been different.
But because the government sent him to Afghanistan to work in the then Labor government’s newly formed “civilian corps” – as an aid worker funding and overseeing local development projects from a military base in rural Uruzgan Province – there was no system in place to deal with his case and little apparent inclination to find a resolution.
Former chief of army Peter Leahy, who advocated for the Savages and helped arrange meetings with reluctant federal ministers, is scathing of the treatment Savage received. Leahy says the system failed a distinguished Australian.
“It was a disgrace the way David was treated when he returned to Australia,” Leahy tells The Saturday Paper. “The Department of Foreign Affairs were distant from him, had no idea how to support him, neglected their responsibilities and made life difficult for a seriously wounded man and his family. It was shameful that it took so long and needed the intervention of a number of people to get him the support that he needed.”
Leahy chairs the veterans’ organisation Soldier On, for which Savage now works as a volunteer ambassador. Leahy says the former officer should never have been forced to plead for help.
“David and Sandra Savage almost had to beg for support and it took seven years before they got proper support, at enormous cost to David’s health and Sandra’s health,” he says.
Privately, other senior figures in the defence community echo Leahy’s remarks.
One calls it a “bloody disgrace”.
“It shouldn’t take forever to get assistance,” the defence insider says. “The system doesn’t give a fuck about public servants who might get injured in conflict.”
Sandra Savage had to give up her own public service job to become her husband’s carer after the incident, because Comcare would not pay for assistance.
Peter Leahy argues the administrative obstructions were not only personally damaging for the Savages, but also potentially hurt the government’s objectives in the longer term.
“The message that sent to other civilians who might be prepared to go into conflict zones was: don’t go.”
What happened the day David Savage was injured is now clearer, thanks to helmet-camera video from one of the American soldiers assigned to guard him as he and his security patrol walked through the town to and from the local governor’s compound.
Defence largely dismissed this video when it prepared its report into Savage’s case, following what is known as an inquiry officer inquiry, or IOI. However, the ADF has since used footage of the bomber’s approach in its training, without Savage’s knowledge.
In the helmet-camera video, the Americans appeared to make a series of errors, breaching standard operating procedures and leaving the patrol vulnerable to attack. Some of their own colleagues have suggested privately they acted against their rules and training.
Savage says that when he first saw the helmet-camera footage in 2013, he was stunned at the number of indicators of escalating risk.
“How many signs do you need that something is about to happen?” he asks. “… I was shocked. I was angry but I was also gobsmacked. Disbelief.”
Savage and his security detail left the base that day to make final preparations for what was to have been an unannounced VIP visit the following day by then director-general of AusAID Peter Baxter and then head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation Paul Symon.
As they left the local governor’s compound to return to the Mirwais base, the American soldiers spoke openly about planning to stop off to buy bread – breaking the basic rule of not foreshadowing the route to be taken.
The man assigned as Savage’s close personal protection – who was carrying an inappropriate weapon, a shotgun instead of a rifle – left the compound without him and then called back to hand him off to a colleague.
“You’ve got Dave, right?”
At the bakery, halfway back, the 16-man patrol lingered. When the bread wasn’t ready, they waited instead of moving on.
One of them noticed a man with stained hands approaching – it could have been henna but equally, as an American soldier observed in the video, it could have been homemade explosive. They commented on it but did nothing else.
They also noticed that labourers in the street had abandoned their usually highly prized tools and disappeared. This was also noted but did not prompt any change in behaviour.
On final approach to the base, the patrol took the most obvious route – another breach of procedure – and the soldiers were far too spread out when, within about 100 metres of home, the white-robed child appeared. White is the colour of the martyr in Afghanistan, and can be a warning of a potential suicide attack.
The child rounded a compound corner and walked down a rocky dirt slope, along the wall, heading towards where Savage and a soldier stood looking across at the lush, irrigated green zone with their backs to the approaching danger.
The soldier wearing the helmet camera – the one given responsibility for Savage at the compound – was some distance ahead of the Australian and stood, watching and filming as the boy passed.
None of the soldiers called out to him to stop. Some Australian soldiers who have seen the video say the boy should have been challenged repeatedly and then, if he did not stop, shot. They also say that such judgements, especially about a child, are the hardest, most awful kind in the theatre of war – a wrong assessment can result in the death of an innocent civilian, then court martial and jail.
Some are reluctant to judge the Americans, unsure of what they themselves would have done. But even these people say, on balance, at the very least the child should have been told to stop – and he wasn’t.
David Savage worked as an AFP officer in Mozambique, Bougainville and East Timor, where he did two tours during the transition to independence, and then spent another four years there with the United Nations. He served in Sri Lanka as a war crimes investigator and moved to Brussels to continue the work externally when the political climate made it impossible to stay. He worked in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand for AusAID and on the UN special panel on Sri Lanka in New York before returning to Australia to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He was then seconded back to AusAID to join the new civilian corps, deploying to Afghanistan in August 2011.
“I was called a stabilisation adviser,” Savage says. “I didn’t have any specific terms of reference. I had to identify development projects, I had to mentor district government officials. I had to try and stabilise the district, try and get the different tribes and villagers to buy into what the central government was selling: to reject the Taliban and to support the central government through the district government officials.”
Savage’s inadequately defined status in Afghanistan arguably contributed to the circumstances that led to his injuries. He was subject to ADF rules but also treated differently.
Because he was a civilian, his personal security was not provided by members of the ADF but by American reservist soldiers from the United States National Guard. Why remains unclear.
Savage recalls an email from AusAID before he deployed telling him that was the arrangement. It was confirmed on arrival in Afghanistan. He didn’t query it.
“No, stupidly,” Savage says, “I didn’t know that they were National Guard. They were the provincial reconstruction team and I presumed that they would be qualified to work in that environment.”
Nevertheless, he speaks highly of some guardsmen, especially those on the US rotation before the one that led the March patrol.
The Saturday Paper is aware of ADF complaints about “babysitting” civilians previously, in Iraq. Some had protested that the behaviour of civilians they had been tasked to protect had put them at unnecessary risk. They objected to doing it again.
When ADF personnel in Afghanistan were supplied with ballistic underwear to minimise lower-torso blast injuries and gel helmet inserts to protect against pressure-wave brain damage, Savage was excluded because he was not a soldier. His request for them was rejected because he wasn’t ADF. The Americans were also issued with them but, because he wasn’t American, he missed out again.
The soldiers were all checked before each patrol and would be penalised for not wearing them. Savage had to go without.
He suffered both lower-torso and brain injuries in the suicide-bomb attack, which also wounded three US soldiers.
“There was no concept back at headquarters that there was a civilian there,” Savage says. “For instance, on Christmas Day, they sent two beers for each person there – but none for me.”
One of the soldiers gave Savage one of his beers.
“I wasn’t on the military sheet so I didn’t exist.”
This was despite being required to travel with soldiers on foot patrols between the base and local worksites and administrative offices, in a town where the threat was constant.
Questions about protection arrangements were among a series The Saturday Paper lodged with Defence this week. In a statement to The Saturday Paper, Defence said the IOI report identified no shortfalls in American soldiers’ procedures.
Australian investigators interviewed the American soldiers who were assigned to guard Savage, but declared the video evidence irrelevant.
Nevertheless, a new risk assessment was completed nine days after the incident.
The Saturday Paper has also been told that after the blast all soldiers at the base were required to retrain in emergency first aid and procedures for calling in details of an attack.
One Australian soldier there at the time says they were told not to be seen as “blaming or accusing the US soldiers”.
Defence has said in a statement that the helmet-camera video was not relevant to the terms of reference of its inquiry, which required investigators to examine “the circumstances of the incident”, including the “direct and indirect causes of the injuries sustained”.
The final report had only praise for the American soldiers. It found that the “professional, competent and composed actions” of the US security force were “commendable”.
But many of those who watched the helmet-camera footage saw it very differently.
In the months after the incident, video showing the child approaching the patrol was used to train ADF personnel and others deploying to Afghanistan in how to spot a potential attacker.
I know this firsthand because I saw it. I undertook my third media embed in Afghanistan as a television correspondent in December 2012, and we were shown the video as part of our orientation and training at the Al Minhad Air Base in Dubai. Others have reported that they saw the video, too.
Defence has confirmed the helmet camera video was shown during training to educate personnel “on the threat of suicide bombers and other risks they would face as part of their mission”.
“The video sent a necessarily confronting message to personnel to take the threat seriously and to apply the force protection measures and training they had received,” it said in a statement to The Saturday Paper.
Some ADF personnel have also suggested privately that security cameras at the patrol base a short distance from where the attack happened captured imagery of the child bomber approaching the patrol.
This is unconfirmed.
Defence denies any such video from the base exists: “Defence is not aware of any other video footage that exists that is relevant to the incident.”
It has not clarified whether vision ever existed. Three Australian soldiers have told David Savage they have seen video footage from the base.
Rather than focusing on the video evidence, the Australian IOI report suggested instead that Savage may have contributed to his own injuries by being overweight and wearing non-ADF-issued body armour.
But they said this was not conclusive.
The Americans had given Savage one of their ballistic vests to wear because the ADF version kept coming undone and leaving him unprotected. He says he had worn the substitute for six months without attracting comment before the March 26 incident.
The IOI report devotes page after page to the implications of his decision. It is the most significant single issue discussed. After the incident the type of body armour issued to civilians was changed.
The report identified some problems – contradictory written instructions and the need for more frequent risk assessments. But nobody was found to have done anything wrong.
David Savage is relieved that financial support means he and Sandra can get on with their lives. He has recovered from a breakdown he suffered three years after the incident. The recent birth of their second grandchild brings new joy.
But Savage has a lingering anger the full circumstances of the attack that nearly took his life have not been officially acknowledged. He considers the IOI report beyond insulting. Likewise, the way government responded to him on return.
“I’ve got a pretty strong sense of what’s right and I’ve been fighting many governments – advocating and getting justice for people,” he says. “So when I saw the official IOI report and had seen the video … it couldn’t be a mistake.”
He alleges “a purposeful manipulation of the truth” – something Defence rejects.
“What I wanted through this was an acknowledgement of the truth – the accuracy of what actually happened to me,” he says. “Because one of the things we kept saying is how can you do a ‘lessons learnt’ if you don’t acknowledge any mistakes, shortcomings, failures?”
It’s a good question.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 7, 2019 as "AusAID bomb victim’s treatment ‘a disgrace’".
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