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The legacy of Corporal Dougie Hughes

Sun 20 Jul 2014 In: True Stories View at Wayback View at NDHA

The late Corporal Douglas Hughes Regardless of his state of mind it is pretty clear that the New Zealand Defence Force failed a conflicted soldier who took his own life shortly after being confronted about his attraction to another male soldier and the way it was affecting his interactions with that, junior, soldier. To recap: in April 2012 Corporal Dougie Hughes, a promising and extremely proficient soldier, appears to have been struggling with his sexuality. Probably lacking support - if it existed he may not have known or felt able to even reach out for it - and definitely in serious inner turmoil, his growing and probably inappropriate infatuation with the other young soldier saw him hauled up, whilst on duty in Afghanistan by a superior officer in the presence of the object of his yearnings. And, well, that's the gist of all we know except that Dougie Hughes ended up dead, by his own hand, within hours. The NZDF conducted a Court Of Inquiry into the tragedy and its report was subsequently reviewed by a coroner with a dubious record when it comes to matters of homosexuality. As a result the Coroner ordered all details to be banned from publication, based on standard orders relating to self-inflicted deaths - even though it is arguable whether his authority extended to such deaths occuring overseas - and in the interests of justice and personal privacy. What aspect of justice and just whose personal privacy have never been explained. During an as-yet unsuccessful attempt by Hughes' mother and whanau, supported by politicians including MP Phil Goff, some of the details have leaked out. But a lingering impression remains that the Coroner was too eager to brush the matter under the carpet and that this was very convenient for the military. An appeal to the Solicitor General was unsuccessful and the NZDF remains silent on the basis of the Coroner's order, choosing not to even issue a sanitised version of the report redacted "for privacy and operational issues." Lieutenant General Tim Keating What, we wondered had the NZDF learned from Dougie Hughes' death? What changes has it put in place as a result, to guard aginst a repeat tragedy? Responding to a series of such questions from Daily News under the Official Information Act about what changes have been made the NZDF says it cannot tell us without contravening the Coroner's order. But to broader questions the country's top soldier, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, is more forthcoming, effusive even, about the NZDF's embracing of glbti soldiers and its regard for their safety. It should be noted that in the 1990s our armed forces - unlike, say, the police - were quick to announce they had no objections to the 1993/94 human rights legislation requiring them not to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexuality. And, led by the Navy, they contracted a gay social issues educator to work with groups of their staff on issues around sexuality and homophobia. At upper levels of the forces this seems to have made a difference, particularly as older and crustier personnel retired out. But how much this really changed attitudes down amongst the rank and file has never been publicly canvassed. As Keating acknowledges, "the NZDF draws its personnel, and their values, from broader society" and therefore "some groups may be more vulnerable than others and we proactively address this." Keating highlights the NZDF's late 2011 approval for the for the forming of the Overwatch group, "specifically to provide additional support if required for our glbti personnel, as well as commanders, managers and colleagues of glbti personnel." They also incorporate sexual orientation awareness into training "such as that for our Anti-Harassment Advisers." The NZDF, he says, has "exemplary policies" on equity and diversity and certainly since Hughes death he and his staff have been much more public about its efforts in this directing, including convening an event at which military and Human resources people presented on aspects of having glbti staff. The force has also been quick to trumpet its accolades such as topping the ANZ/Equal Employment Opportunities Trust Diversity Awards last year and, Keating says "being ranked first in a survey of the most glbti-inclusive militaries in the world." That Dougie Hughes came under enormous mental stress is obvious. How much he was stressed before his sexuality became an up-front issue between himself, the object of his attraction and his senior officer and how much was as a result of that ill-fated encounter is, thanks to the Coroner, unknown. But Keating has volunteered a brief outline of the NZDF's "Management of Mental Health." It talks of an "integrated approach to the management of mental health in the NZDF and treating members with mental health difficulties "in accordance with "best practice guidelines." It says members of the military have access to in-house psychologists, health professionals, chaplains and social workers "who have appropriate training to support the health and wellbeing of personnel. Referrals to external specialists are also available and "all NZDF psychologists and chaplains are trained in the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training programme." A one-hour suicide awareness training package is also delivered "to a range of internal audiences." How much the NZDF had to learn and change as a result of issues raised by the death of Corporal Dougie Hughes remains uncertain. Due to the blackout on the causes and handling of the tragedy we remain unable to get clear and specific information on which to assess the actual change in culture, systems or intent at the NZDF. We can't really get a good before and after comparison. But in the last two years there has been an obvious effort by the NZDF to show that it now has its house in better order regarding its glbti staff and that may be Corporal Dougie Hughes' most enduring legacy. If you need to talk, there is help out there. Please call OUTLine on 0800 OUTLINE. After hours you can call the 24 hour Depression helpline: 0800 111 757.     Jay Bennie - 20th July 2014

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 20th July 2014 - 8:38pm

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