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Heroism and cover-up: full truth still not told about soldier's death (Corporal Neil Mackinnon).

In the last issue we detailed the events surrounding the tragic death of Corporal Neil Mackinnon. Back in March 1995, this soldier's demise had been publicly reported as being the result of Mackinnon's own negligence with a hand grenade. In reality, this infanteer had been shot in the head during a live-fire section attack. It was the bullet wound which had caused him to drop his primed grenade which in turn killed him and severely wounded Warrant Officer Kirk Drew.

The military had known the real cause of death virtually from the moment it occurred and officials had quickly and conclusively determined this sequence of events during the postmortem Board of Inquiry. Six months after the accident, Major Dave Hirter and two of his noncommissioned officers were issued with formal reproofs for their negligent handling of the grenade range.

Given that; all such reprimands are immediately filed with National Defence Headquarters; the Board of Inquiry was signed off by the Chief of Defence Staff himself; and all of the original messages (significant incident reports) concerning Mackinnon's death (including mentions of the bullet) had been immediately sent to the operations centre (i.e.: high command) in Ottawa; one would have thought that someone in authority would have taken the time to correct the public record. Or, at the very least, notify the young soldier's family as to the real cause of death.

Such was not the case however. Instead, Mackinnon's father heard of the bullet factor only through the `jungle telegraph' network (Neil's former friends and comrades.) Rather than come clean when caught out, the military high command continued to lie to Mackinnon senior and attempted to block his search for the truth through bureaucratic obfuscation. Instead of just releasing the Board of Inquiry report the military told Mr. Mackinnon to apply for it under Access to Information. By the time he got his reply, the brass had re-opened the investigation and therefore all information was being withheld.

Eventually, the army ran out of time and excuses. Over eighteen months after Neil Mackinnon's accident, DND officially admitted that a bullet had caused his death. With no explanation as to the delay in admitting the truth, it was announced that Major Dave Hirter and his same two noncommissioned officers were being charged with negligence.

As predicted last issue, Dave Hirter's show trial was a blatant miscarriage of justice. The young infantry major was found guilty and demoted to Captain pending a career review board (which will likely demand his discharge). The fact of the matter is that under the guidelines of the National Defence Act, the military did not have the authority to court martial Hirter. It was the original decision of the high command to deal with this incident in an "administrative" rather than "criminal" fashion.

Once Major Dave Hirter had signed his reproof (September 1995), and thereby accepted his responsibility, the National Defence Act clearly states that he cannot be criminally charged for the same offence (predetermined guilt, double jeopardy, etc...).

Nevertheless, Hirter was charged, tried and convicted by the Military Justice Machine, all in an effort to keep a lid on a still-simmering pot of untold evidence.

What has not been reported from Hirter's trial is that the way in which they entire training exercise was being run was a matter for substantial concern among top army brass. The reason for this top level panic began just days after Cpl Mackinnon was killed and Warrant Officer Kirk Drew was injured. While Ottawa would have been concerned over any training death/injury (especially with negligence being at the core), it was when the second accident happened that the senior management at NDHQ went into damage control overload.

Once again this accident involved a Battle Group under the command of the same Major Dave Hirter and again it was a live-fire drill. Following an artillery bombardment on a ridgeline, Hirter's tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) had assaulted the "enemy" and "fought" through the objective. Once clear, the troops had been reassembled into a vehicle leager some 200 metres away. Here the soldiers were debriefed by the brigade commander himself, General Jimmy Cox.

It had been the last battle run of the day and this same combat team was to re-assault the same ridge the next morning. However, rather than pull back to the start lines, or move off the artillery impact zone to a safe area, the word came down for Hirter and his men to just bivouac where they were. The night was a miserable one, replete with freezing rain, gusting winds, and poor visibility.

For some unexplained reason, nobody informed the Combat Engineers that the Battle Group had remained on the objective for the night, and as a result they had carried out their scheduled task of clearing dud artillery shells from the range.

When the first 155 mm shell was detonated by the engineers, it took everyone in Hirter's combat team by complete surprise. The explosion was so close that the blast wave rocked their armoured vehicles. One young sapper was unfortunate enough to catch a chunk of shrapnel which entered his back and exited through his chest.

Medics onsight immediately went to work to save this young soldier's life while a helicopter medevac was hastily arranged. The flying conditions were atrocious but the sapper's condition was so perilous that all regulations had to be waived. Showing remarkable initiative, the tanks at the scene used their powerful searchlights to illuminate a landing strip. Against all odds, the collective professionalism and heroics of the Canadian servicemembers on that wintry night at Camp Suffield saved the life of their comrade.

For the Canadian public, this heroic drama went by virtually unnoticed. It was issued as a "routine" press release by DND, stating the "injuries were slight".

Inside National Defence Headquarters however, it was a different scenario altogether.

Nobody had missed the similarities involved in the two reported accidents, and everyone knew that something was dangerously wrong with Brigadier General Cox's training exercise.

A full Board of Inquiry was then launched into the whole handling of this operation, and some immediate questions brought damaging answers. Correspondence shows that Jimmy Cox had put his brigade on a "seven-days-notice-to-move" state of readiness and had demanded that his officers reflect this urgency in their sub-unit training. The purpose of this exercise had been to prepare a strike force to relieve our peacekeepers then being held as Serbian hostages against NATO airstrikes. (An operation code-named Cobra.) Unfortunately for Cox's troops, they had no way of knowing that Op Cobra was simply a "tonic for the troops", or a "placebo for the public". (Canada could not possibly mount such a mission.) However, Brigadier Cox told his officers that this was the "real McCoy" and he talked at length of the US Navy having "roll-on, roll-off" ships waiting for them in Halifax harbour.

All this was of course news to Army Command, who once advised of this state of affairs, immediately told Cox to put his men back on 40 days notice to move, and to stand down the intensity of his training. There were no further casualties, and Cox was quietly transferred to Ottawa.

The complete Board of Inquiry into both Mackinnon's death and Cox's exercise has been complete for over three months and (at time of writing) that document has yet to be released under Access to Information.

For the record: At his court martial, Dave Hirter's military lawyer did not introduce any evidence from the second accident or anything pertaining to General Cox having exceeded his authority to create a dangerous environment, as it was considered to be "irrelevant".

Brigadier General Jimmy Cox is presently the Army's Command Inspector General and as such is investigating recent breakdowns in leadership and the chain of command. Including the Mackinnon case.
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Author:Taylor, Scott R.
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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