Pte Kovco’s platoon sergeant said he was devastated to learn there had been a major mix-up over the repatriation of his mate’s body.
He told the board of inquiry into Pte Kovco’s death that while he made several checks to try to ensure the right body was sent home to Australia, he failed.
The sergeant, codenamed Soldier 2, said he was so tired and stressed by the time he made a final check on what he believed was Pte Kovco’s body at a civilian mortuary in Kuwait that he only gave it a cursory glance while standing two or three metres away.
“As it turned out, I don’t believe I was psychologically suited to the task,” Soldier 2, who has received counselling over the bungle, said.
“I was tired, emotional and under stress. I wasn’t in the mood to have a good look for a number of reasons.
“Obviously in retrospect there’s more that could have been done and the vigilance I displayed at the mortuary was lacking and I take responsibility for that lack of vigilance.”
Pte Kovco died after being shot in the head inside his Baghdad barracks on April 21.
But his body was left by mistake at a civilian mortuary in Kuwait, with the corpse of a Bosnian carpenter flown to Australia instead.
Soldier 2 said a group of Pte Kovco’s mates who also accompanied his body to Kuwait were desperate to ensure there was no mix-up and implored him to make regular checks.
He said he tried his best to meet their requests, and checked the body during its transfer from the US military hospital in Baghdad where Pte Kovco died, to a military morgue and finally the mortuary in Kuwait.
But seeing the body so many times left Soldier 2 extremely stressed and compounded the pressure he felt to ensure Pte Kovco’s coffin was sent home quickly.
His superior officers had also not given him any explicit instructions about what his responsibilities were as Pte Kovco’s escort.
Soldier 2 said it was difficult to identify Pte Kovco because he looked so different – given the gunshot wound to his head and because his body had been embalmed.
He said four other people were with him in the mortuary when the body was presented, including the Australian Embassy in Kuwait’s first secretary Alastar (Alastar) Adams, who had a photo of Pte Kovco.
The diplomat “appeared to be satisfied that the body was Pte Kovco’s”, Soldier 2 said.
“Furthermore, I assumed that there was only one body in a military body bag and I expected the (morgue) staff would have ensured that the correct body was presented.
“As a consequence … the attention I paid was cursory.”
Pte Kovco’s parents today told Soldier 2 he was not to blame.
“They do not blame you for what occurred in relation to the repatriation and they thank you for your expression of regret,” the couple said through their lawyer.
Meanwhile, Pte Kovco’s two roommates who were with him when he was shot are being flown back from Baghdad to front the inquiry next week and undergo DNA tests for police.