The Kovco Case: Mother’s Grief Real, and So Are Her Questions

The death of a loved one is always difficult. For parents, regardless of the age of the child, anger, blame, impotence and guilt may accompany more generally experienced feelings like shock, disbelief, confusion, sadness, resentment, bitterness, hopelessness and depression.

The essential task of a parent, alongside teaching and loving their children is protecting them. This may lead some parents to react to their child’s accidental or violent death with feelings of failure and guilt (“If only I’d…”). For many parents, a complete and unvarnished account of the cause of death, a full explanation of any mistakes made, and reassurance that systems have changed to avoid the recurrence of such problems is critical to the success of their healing journey.

Judy Kovco’s public journey of grief and truth-seeking has laid bare the tragedy and as yet unresolved questions surrounding her son Jake’s death in Iraq in April. A claimed leak earlier this week of the military board of inquiry’s conclusion that Jake Kovco died of an unintentional self-inflicted gunshot wound may be one more example of the military’s mishandling of the incident and its aftermath.

If this does turn out to be the board’s conclusion about how Jake Kovco died, it is not the one his mother wants to hear. From the moment last April when the Defence Minister wrongly informed the public that Kovco was shot in the head while cleaning his gun – a mishap followed in short order by the military’s mistaken repatriation of a Bosnian carpenter to Australia, and the loss in Melbourne airport of the draft report into this bungle – Judy has campaigned for the truth to be told about her son’s death. Commenting on the lost report she noted that it would not “bring my son back” or “tell…me what happened to my son. That’s what I want to know.”

Judy Kovco’s approach and response to the military board of inquiry, however, point to some long-held suspicions. The separate counsel she and husband Martin engaged to represent them at the hearing made the point as far back as July this year that, “There are three people that had access to that firearm”. In response to police evidence at the inquiry that Jake’s lethal injury was self-inflicted, Judy is reported to have shouted “Keystone Kops!” before leaving the room. Not long after, she appeared on TV implying that bungled repatriation of Jake’s body was the consequence of a face-saving military cover-up. She said there was “no way known” that Jake would have shot himself purposely or accidentally, and that she would fight to obtain the truth for her son “forever”.

In response to this week’s purported leak of the board’s forthcoming conclusions, Judy questioned the basis of any conclusion that Jake shot himself, and the trustworthiness of any investigation resulting in that conclusion. “This was the army investigating the army”, she said, adding that she has asked for a separate coronial inquiry. “I know what I have to do for Jake. I will fight for Jake and I will fight for the truth…I’m his mother and I will fight for him”.

What are we to make of Judy Kovco’s pursuit of another investigation into the final moments of Private Jake Kovco?

On the one hand, she seems to have formed a view early on in the piece – while still in the early stages of shock and grief – that someone other than Jake may have caused the gun to discharge. In September, months after retaining separate counsel that pursued this line of inquiry, she told a reporter that she was still in “complete shock” from the death. “I still haven’t come to grips with the fact that he’s gone”.

Has Judy Kovco imagined the bogey-men with whom she must do battle in defence of her dead son, perhaps as a way of managing the terrible grief a parent experiences on the death of a beloved child? Is her desire to protect her son’s reputation from post-mortem slurs on his professionalism blinding her to the weight of evidence about what really happened?

On the other hand, Judy Kovco is only pointing out what is undeniably true: that significant questions remain unanswered about the manner of Jake’s death, and the way the military managed and investigated it. They include queries about how the DNA of one of the soldiers with Kovco at the time wound up on Jake’s gun; why the military failed to seal the room after the incident, allowing Kovco’s clothes to be destroyed, and the clothes and bodies of the soldiers present to be washed (destroying potential forensic evidence); and the reason for the delayed military police interviews of Kovco’s two roommates and others in the unit, allowing the soldiers to get together and talk about the event. As the profile of the case grew, questions must also be asked about the wisdom of the military’s insistence on investigating itself, a decision that former justice George Hampel says inspires a “perception that they will look after their own”.

Conspiracy or cock-up? Grief-blinded mother or whistle-blower? Without an independent investigation of the entire affair, we may never know.

Publication history

The Kovco Case: Mother's Grief Real, and So Are Her Questions  The Sydney Morning Herald
The Kovco Case: Mother's Grief Real, and So Are Her Questions  The Age