Failures of Command: The death of Private Robert Poate by Hugh Poate

‘It was 9.45 pm on 29 August 2012 at Patrol Base Wahab in the Dorafshan region of Afghanistan.’

On 29 August 2012, Private Robert Poate, Lance Corporal Rick Milosevic, and Sapper James Martin were killed during an insider (‘green on blue’) attack in Afghanistan. Their killer, a supposed ally, was a Taliban sleeper within the ranks of the Afghan National Army. An internal investigation report was provided to each of the three grieving families. Not only was the report heavily redacted, but it also excluded critical information. Hugh Poate, grieving the loss of his son Robbie, set out to find the facts. His journey took over five years, and this book is the result.

‘Just as the present has been shaped by the past, the future will be shaped by the present.’

What can I say about this book, about Hugh Poate’s quest for answers, about the labyrinth of obfuscation he and the other families had to negotiate to try to find answers? This is not just an account of the tragic loss of life during war, it is an account of how failures of command contributed to these three deaths.

Robbie Poate was 23 years old when he was killed. Hugh Poate describes the tragedy, the processes that followed and then Robbie’s funeral here in Canberra. Heartbreaking.

‘The funeral was a beautiful and fitting military send-off for Robbie, a son, brother, soldier and everybody’s friend. He died as a soldier and was buried as a soldier. He was just 23 years old.’

I kept reading. By the time of these three deaths, Australia had been engaged in war within Afghanistan for 12 years. On 13 August 2012, a ‘FRAGO’ (fragmentary order) was issued. A FRAGO, as Hugh Poate explains, is what the military uses to issue timely changes of existing orders to subordinate and supporting commanders, while also providing notification to higher and adjacent commands. Its essential purpose is to inform units that one or more elements of the relevant base order have changed.

‘FRAGO 13 was issued specifically to mandate additional measures to be introduced immediately across all ISAF forces in Afghanistan to upgrade force protection measures to mitigate insider attacks, which were escalating at that time.’

FRAGO 13 was issued 16 days before the attack in which Robbie Poate, Rick Milosevic and James Martin were killed. Why wasn’t this order acted on? And why weren’t the ANA soldiers being monitored more closely?

I kept reading, shifting between anger and despair as I read about how the three families were treated, especially at the coroner’s hearing, and after. I finished the book filled with sadness for the mismanagement that rendered our soldiers so vulnerable and for the bureaucratic processes, the bungling and coverups which have characterised much of the ADF’s dealings with the families since.

‘The non-commissioned soldiers who are most likely to face enemy action, and the general public, are entitled to expect commissioned officers to be highly competent.’

Indeed.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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