Major stood down over ill-fated patrol

Major stood down over ill-fated patrol

Lieutenant Michael Fussell, 25, from Armidale in NSW, died instantly when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan last November.

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Two major reports into the Sydney-based 4RAR Commando Battalion soldier’s death were released on Monday.

Australian Defence Force head Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston will review how officers are assessed for command appointments in line with recommendations from one of the reports.

The first, by Inquiry Officer Colonel Terence McCullagh, found that while orders on the night the soldier was killed were “rushed and incomplete”, they didn’t contribute to his death.

Colonel McCullagh did note that so-called track discipline in the minutes prior to Lt Fussell’s death was inadequate, and that other troops walking with the digger could have been in a position to stop the unsafe practice but didn’t.

Leadership concerns

The report raised some concerns about leadership within the patrol group, prompting Air Chief Marshal Houston to commission a second, broader inquiry into the incident.

Vice Admiral Christopher Ritchie found there was a long history of leadership concerns surrounding the major in charge of Lt Fussell’s patrol group.

“Indeed Major 1 claimed that his training had not prepared him for operations as conducted on the night of 26/27 November and further he accepted the allegations of poor leadership made against him (by his peers),” he wrote in his report.

But Vice Admiral Ritchie stopped short of blaming the major for Lt Fussell’s death.

“His specific leadership shortcomings are not really of his own making,” he wrote.

“They are the product of a system that has selected the wrong man for the job and then been unable to identify or correct its faults.”

Major retained rank

Air Chief Marshal Houston said the major had been stood down from his command, but kept his rank and continued to serve in the army.

“All of us aspire to command, to be removed is indeed a drastic action and it’s a very difficult set of circumstances for the individual concerned,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Vice Admiral Ritchie also singled out deficient training, assessment and certification processes as contributing to Lt Fussell’s death.

“Deficient training, assessment, certification and consequently leadership of (the) force element operated to increase the risk that such a casualty might occur,” he wrote.

“Therefore, those deficiencies materially contributed to the death of Lieutenant Fussell.”

Ultimately, however, Vice Admiral Ritchie said Lt Fussell “brought on his own demise” by not following proper track discipline while on patrol.

Deficiencies in training

Another report, by the Defence Force’s Judge Advocate General, supported this finding, saying there was no evidence Major 1 was in a position to check whether the soldier was adhering to walking guidelines just before his death.

Air Chief Marshal Houston said he accepted the report’s findings.

“The precise extent to which other factors may have borne on this result is in the circumstances impossible to fix with precision,” he said.

“What is clear from Vice Admiral Ritchie’s report is that the risk of a casualty occurring in Afghanistan was increased by the deficiencies in training, assessment, certification and leadership.”

He said he would act on all five of Vice Admiral Ritchie’s recommendations, which included reviewing the army’s system for assessing and certifying officers for command appointments and formalising documents outlining proper track discipline.

A Commission of Inquiry into Lt Fussell’s death was not suggested.