Hard News by Russell Brown


A good soldier dies

To my knowledge, I have only met one gay member of the New Zealand defence forces: a young soldier I spoke with a couple of years ago. He was handsome, poised and confident. Inevitably, I asked him whether his sexuality was an issue in the army.

No, he said. All his Army colleagues cared about was the professionalism of the soldier next to them.

As the story of the late Corporal Hughes breaks open, the natural tendency is to assume that the forces are not the safe, inclusive place we have been led to believe they are. And that Corporal Hughes may have been driven to his death by bullying related to his sexuality.

But Tony Wall's clear, detailed story for yesterday's Sunday Star Times suggests a more complex picture; one of a passionate, talented soldier who did not get the pastoral and psychological support he needed in a challenging environment, and whose case may have been badly mishandled.

It includes this passage:

In early 2012, Hughes, who was the dismount commander for Kiwi Company's team 2 patrol, began mentoring Trooper A and spent much of his off-duty time with him and other troopers and privates in Kiwi company, rather than his NCO peers.

The report says some soldiers didn't like this and complained to the patrol command team, who talked to Hughes about it.

He promised to reduce the time he was spending with the junior soldiers, but soon reverted back to spending long periods with them, in particular Trooper A.

The report found Hughes became "increasingly focused on controlling Trooper A's activities", culminating in a plan he concocted to embarrass Trooper A in front of a female chef, supposedly to correct a "lack of focus within the patrol" by the trooper.

Senior officers discussed Hughes and whether he needed psychological support.

Later in the evening, Sergeant H, who family say Hughes did not get along with, confronted Hughes about the incident where he had embarrassed Trooper A.

According to the report, Hughes broke down, admitted he was gay, and had feelings for Trooper A.

Sergeant H organised a meeting between himself, Hughes, and Trooper A, where Hughes admitted to Trooper A he had concocted the incident with the female chef and reiterated his feelings for the trooper.

Trooper A became angry, and despite Hughes' repeated attempts to apologise, said he wanted nothing more to do with him. The pair continued to talk, Hughes apparently breaking into tears at times, with Sergeant H remaining close by.

If this happened as described, then Corporal Hughes was behaving inappropriately and unprofessionally. Moreover, he had expressed suicidal thoughts. He was clearly in need of help. It's hard to believe that Sergeant H's meeting constituted help of an appropriate kind. Indeed, it appears to have been a trigger for suicide.

Corporal Hughes' family says he was uncomfortable discussing his sexuality in his professional environment and believe he was bullied. But it's quite possible to set aside his sexuality and focus on the support he received, or did not receive, in a risky situation. It looks like it was a mess.

Which is what makes Coroner Gordon Matenga's refusal to order an inquiry into Corporal Hughes' death so staggering. How on earth could the coroner have read that report and decide that it was all done and dusted? The coroner's submission to the select committee considering the marriage equality bill -- as a Mormon, he is strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, and his language in the submission is harsh -- raises questions about his judgement, and perhaps about his handling of this case.

Corporal Hughes' whanau wants an open inquiry. It looks to me not only that they deserve such an inquiry, but that it would be important and useful in a wider context.

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