The Fallen - Part Three
In the third part of our series, The Fallen tells the story of Richard Atkinson, killed in Afghanistan, through the words of his family and friends.PT0M0S 620 349
- Benjamin Ranaudo - A Digger's life lost, and many lives shattered
- Brett Wood - Gallantry personified, and medals to prove it
THE parents of a young Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan have applauded the government's decision to keep secret official reports into some combat deaths.
Kate and Ross Atkinson say they took 'a deliberate decision' to ask that Defence withhold the report into the death of their son Richard in February last year.
“There were things in that report that we felt didn't reflect the particular picture as we saw it,” Ross Atkinson told The Age / Herald in an interview for 'The Fallen', an on-line series examining the views of Australians who have lost loved ones in the Afghanistan war.
22-year-old Corporal Richard Atkinson was leading his combat engineer section as a search commander in the Tangi Valley region of Afghanistan's Oruzgan Province when a bomb exploded, killing him instantly.
In March this year, Defence announced it had completed 'comprehensive inquiries' into three separate incidents that claimed the lives of five Australian soldiers, including Richard Atkinson.
It said Defence Minister Stephen Smith had 'weighed the wishes of the families and the public interest' and had agreed with Defence 'not to release the three ... reports' even though previous reports had been 'released publicly as a matter of course'.
Both Richard's parents say it was important for them to read the Defence report into their son's death, even though large portions of the version they were given had been redacted.
“I had to read it,” says Kate Atkinson. “Some people will find this very hard to understand, but I also had to know things like the autopsy report.”
She says she had to understand the detail of Richard's death before she could “remember the nice things … remember the happy times.”
“I've seen the report and the report is a really sad place to go. It's got some details in it that I would never want anybody's grandmother or grandfather to have to read; things that would just make other people so sad, and it's a very graphic place to be. It's a really harsh, harsh place to go; very hard thing to do.”
Ross Atkinson says before his son's death, his position on the release of such reports would have been 'one of openness', but when the report concerns a loved one 'it becomes very personal'.
He applauds the Minister's and Departments new approach. “I think they handled it very well, from our point of view,” he says.
Just last month, Richard Atkinson's case was one of eight mentioned in a News Limited report suggesting the remains of some soldiers killed in Afghanistan had been mishandled during their return to Australia.
In Corporal Atkinson's case, it was suggested medical tubes and equipment had been removed contrary to guidelines.
Ross Atkinson says he 'wasn't aware of it' and 'didn't know it was an issue'.
“I think it's a non-story'” he says.
Despite that, he says news media were 'very sensitive' in the days after his son's death.
“There were no gratuitous stories out there. There was no one delving into his history trying to muck rake.”
Sixteen months on, Kate Atkinson says the grief from losing her boy, has changed.
“Sometimes you can be doing something really, really ordinary and a mental image of Richard's death will come into my mind; that moment when he died; the scene of where he died and how he died.”
“It can just hit you like I would think you would hit a wall, like almost fall backwards on your back. It's an incredible jolt. It's really hard. It's horrible.”
For all that she and her husband say they have been 'amazingly cared for'.
“We've just had incredible support from friends and family and strangers. Um, all sorts of people have just shown us amazing support. That's been a big help along the way.”