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What happened to David Savage

Dec 12, 2019 • 16m 57s

Seven years ago, David Savage was injured while working for the Australian government in Afghanistan. He has fought since to have his compensation settled and the truth of what happened acknowledged.

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What happened to David Savage

141 • Dec 12, 2019

What happened to David Savage

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Seven years ago, David Savage was injured while working for the Australian government in Afghanistan. He has fought since to have his compensation settled and to have what actually happened to him acknowledged. Karen Middleton on one man’s long fight for the truth.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So, Karen, when did you first meet David Savage?

KAREN:

I met David in 2012. He had been in Afghanistan between August of 2011 and March of 2012. I was going on my third media embed to Afghanistan in December of 2012, and I met him literally, I think it was the day before I went.

ELIZABETH:

Karen Middleton wrote about David Savage’s case for The Saturday Paper. She’s the author of An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan.

KAREN:

He and I had been at the same base, military base, in Uruzgan Province near the town of Chora.

ELIZABETH:

And what took David Savage to Afghanistan initially?

KAREN:

He was working for AusAID. He joined what had been newly created as the civilian corps. And it was a bunch of civilians being deployed to difficult parts of the world as aid and development workers armed with pots of money, basically, to help local development projects.

This was a new force, the civilian corps that had been raised and sent off with great fanfare. But they really, it seems anyway, hadn't thought carefully through all the logistical and practical and even legal implications of that. So he was there like a defacto member of the defence force, but he wasn't a member. And I guess this is where some of the problems arose.

ELIZABETH:

And so what happened to Savage while he was working in Afghanistan in 2011, 2012?

KAREN:

Well, he'd been there for some months, as I mentioned. And then on the 26th of March 2012, he was on a foot patrol from the base they were at, which is called Forward Operating Base Mirwais to the governor's compound in the middle of the town of Chora. The base was on the outskirts of town; this is a really dusty town. It’s mud compounds and dirt and not a lot of development.

Because it was a high threat environment. They had to change their route frequently, they had to make sure that they didn't foreshadow to anybody what they were planning to do, because that would just give anyone with evil intent the opportunity to catch them unaware.

[Ambient noise begins]

And David, and an American security detail, who were the people who were tasked to look after him went to the governor's compound and then came back through the town to the base.

Archival tape — Recording of David Savage and American security detail:

American security detail: “Good to go?”
David Savage “Yes, let’s go”
“We’re rolling”

KAREN:

But some of the criticisms of that mission back to the base include the fact that they did foreshadow the route that were going to take.They were talking openly in front of locals at the governor's compound about the fact they were going to stop off and buy bread on the way back.

Archival tape — Recording of American security detail:

“Yeah we’re going to go through the bazaar, through the market, I think we’re going to pick up some bread.”

KAREN:

There was a bit of confusion about which one of them was actually responsible personally for David Savage. One of them, the guys that had been responsible, handed him off to someone else.

Archival tape — Recording of American security detail:

“You got Dave right?”
“Roger”

KAREN:

They didn't stick together like they were supposed to. They were quite spread out. They also noticed a man approaching that had stained hands.

Archival tape — Recording of American security detail:

“837, you got a guy coming your way with these orange hands.”

KAREN:

Now, that can be from the use of henna, which is often used a lot in rural Afghanistan. But it can also be a sign of homemade explosive. And they did comment on that point.

Archival tape — Recording of American security detail:

“Stained hands are usually a sign of HME production”

KAREN:

But they didn't actually do anything about it. They didn't stop him and question him. They just remarked on his hands and let him go.

And there was also another incident where a lot of the local labourers who'd been working on a development project in the street had disappeared and left their tools behind.

Archival tape — Recording of American security detail:

“You’ve got a lot of tools here and nobody working.”

KAREN:

Now, their tools are worth a lot of money and they're often prized possessions for people in those kinds of jobs. So for them to leave them behind, while they might have been another explanation, it was also a bit suspicious that they might have been something going on and they were trying to get out of the way. But none of this raised the suspicions of the soldiers enough for them to do anything about it.

So there was a series of mistakes made in the course of that patrol getting back to the base. And at three minutes to midday on the 26th of March, a child dressed all in white robes, came down a hillside, approached the patrol right near the base, about 100 metres away, and was able to walk right into the middle of that patrol because it was so spread out and detonated a bomb, which wounded David Savage and three of the Americans.

Archival tape — Recording of American security detail:

[Bomb detonates]
“Shit son.”
“God.”
“Where the fuck did that come from?”
“Suicide bomber.”

ELIZABETH:

Karen, there’s tape of what happened that day, where did it come from?

KAREN:

Well, there were some eyewitnesses, but the primary source of...of all of that detail is a helmet camera video from one of the American soldiers that emerged quite quickly, we understand, within defence circles. But it was quite a while before David Savage knew it existed and was able to see it.

ELIZABETH:

And so do we know who within defence circles had seen it?

KAREN:

Well, I actually saw it. I didn't know at the time that that's what it was or where it had come from but on my third trip to Afghanistan, the one in early December of 2012, we go through a four day training session, and one of the videos that they showed us was a video of this child coming down the hill wearing white robes. In fact, Defence have confirmed to me in the past few days that that video was the helmet camera video from the American soldier. So I mentioned that when I met David Savage subsequently in the last couple of years, and he mentioned that he'd had this helmet camera video presented to him. So we suspected it was the same thing. And Defence has now confirmed that it was.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Was David Savage aware that it was being used in this way?

KAREN:

No, he wasn't. He found out belatedly. I think it was 2013 before he knew about the video's existence.

Archival tape — David Savage:

‘I’d been pretty numb by all of this...I didn’t, like, you know….I was still in shock, I think, a year later to be honest’

KAREN:

So he was, I think, quite taken aback to discover that it was being used as a training video about what to look out for at the very least. And he has been frustrated and worse, very angry about the way that video has really been sort of set aside in the investigations into what happened.

Archival tape — David Savage:

‘I was stunned. It was like how many signs do you need that something is about to happen?’

KAREN:

The investigators who looked into the incident have determined that the video wasn't relevant to the terms of reference. So it's a bit hard to see how it wouldn't be relevant, but that's what Defense is determined.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Karen, we're talking about David Savage and AusAID worker who was injured by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2012. As you say, there was an investigation into what happened to him after he returned to Australia. What did that investigation find?

KAREN:

Yes, it's called an Inquiry Officer Inquiry, nice and complicated. And there's an inquiry like this into every incident where an Australian is killed or wounded in the theatre of war. And there was, in this case, an inquiry officer, is appointed with an offsider. And they go into the country where the incident occurred, in this case in Afghanistan, they interview all the relevant people. But there's a bit of frustration that sometimes these inquiries don't get to the heart of things or that they might be glossing over some things that might be politically difficult or difficult with international relations.

[Music starts]

There's some concern that this report might have been in that category. That it might have been uncomfortable to be pointing the finger at American forces who were designated to do the security for AusAID officers rather than Australian Defence Force personnel. And this report, in the end, has found that while things some things should have changed, there were some conflicting information in various written instructions about the kind of equipment he should have used and some of the processes that should have been followed. It didn't find anyone did anything wrong. And I think that really sticks with David Savage.

Archival tape — David Savage:

‘When I saw the official IOI report and had seen the video and realised that it couldn't be a mistake. There'd been a purposeful manipulation of the truth. After what I’d been through, why would you do this?’

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

And what about Savage? How is he personally described in the report? What's his role in what happened?

KAREN:

Well, it gives a lot of attention to the body armor that he was wearing. Now, David Savage is a big bloke. And when he was issued with body armor, which was issued by the Australian Defense Force before he went into Afghanistan, the kind of armor he was issued has sort of Velcro straps and flaps around the sides. And he found as soon as he started to wear it that it was coming off quite a lot. It didn't do up very well. And the American soldiers that were patrolling with him agreed that it didn't do up. And if it was coming undone, it wasn't gonna provide him with adequate protection. So they, to be practical, gave him a vest that was in their stores to wear, which fitted him better. The inquiry report, spent a lot of time talking about this, the fact that he didn't use the right equipment and that he should've been wearing an Australian vest and it looked into whether or not this contributed to his injuries.

In my personal view, it did seem to have a, an inappropriately heavy emphasis on that issue rather than some of the other issues that quite clearly were at play.

ELIZABETH:

And what about the extent of his injuries? I mean, what were they and what happened after he was brought back to Australia after the event?

KAREN:

His lower limbs were injured and his lower torso and his buttocks. And one of his arms in particular, both of his arms. But he also got a pressure wave injury to his brain. So he suffered a mild brain injury. There was shrapnel in his helmet. If he hadn't been wearing the helmet, he would have had a much more direct brain injury and would likely have been killed.

Some of the frustration that he feels though is that the equipment that defense force personnel were issued in-country was different to what he was issued. So at one point in early 2012, all the soldiers were issued with a new form of ballistic underwear, blast proof underwear that were like bike shorts that they could pull on and gel inserts for the helmet. The gel pads were to protect from a pressure wave injury. But because he wasn't a defense force person, they didn't supply any for him. It's sadly ironic, I guess, that some of the injuries he received were injuries that potentially could have been lessened if he was wearing those things.

He was actually able to walk initially. I mean, it really was miraculous. But some of the shrapnel was embedded in his body and it was difficult to remove because it was so small. And three years after the incident, some of it shifted in his body pressed up against his spinal cord and he went from being able to walk to being in a wheelchair. So that regression had a big impact on him psychologically. He suffered a breakdown effectively three years after the event and had to go through a lot of intense counseling.

And one of the things he struggles with a great deal, that he's talked to me about, is the fact that there are pieces of this child, there are traces of this child bomber inside his own body that he'll never be able to remove. I mean the child was was obliterated when the bomb went off. And David Savage has to come to terms with that, which is a pretty terrible thing to have to think about when you're trying to recover.

ELIZABETH:

And so, Karen, who, who looked after David Savage compensation for those injuries and the treatment that he required after that?

KAREN:

Well, part of the issue was that he fell through the cracks. He was sort of stuck between AusAID and the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Defense Department and the Australian Defense Force. He was there in the civilian corps, but defense was doing everything else around that deployment. And everyone seemed to think that he was somebody else's problem.

And I spoke to people, including the former chief of Army, General Peter Leahy, who spoke out on the record saying what an outrage it was effectively that it had taken so long and that someone like David Savage, who really is a very decorated officer, had been a federal police officer, had worked on international war crimes investigations in Sri Lanka, had served with the UN in East Timor, in Mozambique, in other countries in Southeast Asia, was left to beg effectively with his wife, Sandra, for some kind of ongoing help and support.

There wasn't any assistance for a carer. So Sandra Savage, who was a public servant herself, had to give up her own job to care for David at home because there was no money for a professional care. So she's lost seven years of employment and seven years of superannuation.

He ended up just this year, quite recently, getting what's called an Act of Grace payment, which is for the people who fall between the cracks. There’s an allowance for people who have special circumstances, and in his case, they argued there was a moral obligation to provide some kind of financial, ongoing support to assist with costs: past and future. And then separately, he got a Comcare payout, but he had to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to challenge the initial offer for that. There was no consideration given to how that was going to work if there was somebody wounded. He was just left in the Comcare system, which really is not set up for something as complicated and dramatic as a war injury.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

So, Karen, after all of this, what happens now for David Savage?

KAREN:

I think there is unofficial acknowledgement that there was a problem in the status of that program. I've certainly spoken to people who suggests that. But there hasn't been any formal acknowledgment. And that's the thing that David Savage is so upset about.

Archival tape — Davdi Savage:

‘How can you do a lessons learned if you don’t acknowledge the mistakes, shortcomings, failures. You’ve got to identify what happened to, to know how to change things and to prevent that being repeated.’

KAREN:

He worries that if there is no formal acknowledgment that mistakes were made particularly in that defense report, that things might re-occur, that there might be, again, another program like this in which people are sent off to a war without properly thinking through all the future implications of it. And so he's pushing to have this video acknowledged in a more direct way and to make sure that there are things in place to prevent this sort of thing ever happening again.

ELIZABETH:

Karen, thank you so much.

KAREN:

Thanks, Elizabeth.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The first Australian victims killed in the White Island eruption in New Zealand have been identified as Brisbane mother Julie Richards and her 20-year-old daughter Jessica. Of the 47 tourists that were on the island, 24 were Australian. 10 Australians are still unaccounted for.

And in Washington, the House Democratic leaders have formally called for President Trump’s removal from office in two articles of impeachment, asserting that he “ignored and injured the interests of the nation.” The draft articles accuse Trump of “corruptly soliciting” election assistance from the government of Ukraine. Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnelll says that If the House follows through and impeaches the president next week, Trump would stand trial in the Senate early in the new year.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Friday.

[Theme music ends]

Seven years ago, David Savage was injured while working for the Australian government in Afghanistan. He has fought since to have his compensation settled and to have what actually happened to him acknowledged. Karen Middleton on one man’s long fight for the truth.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Background reading:

AusAID bomb victim’s treatment ‘a disgrace’ in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Elle Marsh, with Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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141: What happened to David Savage