I wrote this post for my blog last week, then decided it was an issue of public importance that deserved a wider audience. I shared it with the NZ Herald, which published its own story by David Fisher today.
A New Zealand Army hero has been denied proper posthumous recognition for reasons that are bafflingly unclear. The most plausible explanation is that the NZ Defence Force wanted to be spared further embarrassment over a shameful episode from its past.
Private David Edward Whawhai Stewart, 23, was killed in a ferocious blizzard on Mt Ruapehu in 1990 while trying to save his comrades on an ill-planned winter training exercise. He was one of six who died from hypothermia in the army’s greatest loss of life in a single incident since the Second World War.
Stewart (pictured above) could have saved himself by hunkering down in his sleeping bag but instead risked his life exposing himself to the elements, moving around in 180 kmh winds and near-zero visibility in an attempt to help his comrades and keep up morale. Seven in the party of 13 survived, but Stewart died after the wind ripped away the sleeping bag he had volunteered to share with two others. Evidence suggested he was the last of the six to die.
An army court of inquiry led by Colonel Bernard Isherwood found that Stewart exhausted himself helping his companions. “It is the Court’s belief that his efforts to assist others were largely instrumental in causing his own death.” Stewart and Private Sonny Te Rure, the court said, had displayed “leadership and self-sacrifice of the highest order”.
It recommended decorations for both soldiers and for Private Brendon Burchell, who descended the mountain with one of the two instructors in the party to get help. Burchell and Te Rure (now known as Sonny Tavake) both survived.
Extraordinarily, it took nine years for the army to formally acknowledge the men’s heroism. And when recognition finally came, it was in the form of the New Zealand Bravery Medal – the lowest of four civilian awards for bravery. The Bravery Medal is awarded for “acts of bravery”, with no reference to the context in which the act occurred. (Military honours for gallantry, such as the Victoria Cross, are not awarded in peacetime.)
For several years, Isherwood, a former commanding officer of the NZSAS, and retired Warrant Officer Bob Davies have led a patient but determined campaign to get Stewart’s honour upgraded. They submitted that a more appropriate honour would be the New Zealand Cross, which is given for “acts of outstanding bravery in situations of extreme danger” – an apt description of the circumstances in which Stewart put his own life at risk.
At times it seemed they were almost across the line. Former Defence Minister Peeni Henare was supportive. So was Sir Jerry Mateparae, former Governor-General and chief of the NZ Defence Force. But this month Isherwood and Davies learned via a letter from current Defence Minister Andrew Little that the request had gone right to the top, to prime minister Chris Hipkins, who turned it down.
The reason given was that “the prime minister was of the view that it was important to uphold the long-established principle that decisions about awards of this kind were best made while all the relevant information was readily available, recall of the events was clear, and the actions concerned could be considered against the standards and values of the time and other contemporary examples.”
It seems an elaborately contrived excuse. The “relevant information” was all there in the 24-page report of the court of inquiry led by Isherwood only days after the tragedy, when recall of the event could not have been clearer. Statements were taken under oath from men who had personally witnessed Stewart’s valour.
The court of inquiry’s citation for Stewart – not made public at the time – noted that he “would have been fully aware that his actions in continually moving out of shelter and the warmth of his sleeping bag to assist those with hypothermia meant he had an increased chance of also becoming a casualty. He was also aware that he was becoming increasingly exhausted by the continual battling of the elements.”
What further information could have been needed? And in what way have “standards and values” altered since 1990? Has heroism been redefined in the intervening 33 years?
It was a fob-off that left the ex-army men scratching their heads. They believe their efforts were stymied by the hierarchy of the NZDF. But why, when it would appear to be in the interests of the NZDF to honour its own?
One possible explanation is stubborn institutional reluctance to revisit decisions made decades ago. But what seems more likely is that the NZDF doesn’t want to admit, even after all this time, that the army got it badly wrong not once but twice: the first time by sending 10 soldiers and a naval rating up on the mountain with inexperienced instructors, and again by not promptly recognising the acts of heroism that almost certainly prevented further loss of life.
Isherwood, who now finds himself at odds with the army that he devoted 32 years of his life to, describes it as a can of worms that the military hierarchy doesn’t want to reopen.
The excuse given for the nine-year delay in awarding medals to Stewart, Te Rure and Burchell was that the bravery awards were in transition at the time from a British system to a New Zealand one. But Isherwood says there was resistance “from day one” within the NZDF.
It may be an indication of the army’s discomfort over the Ruapehu tragedy that it took more than 30 years for the report of the court of inquiry to be released. I obtained it last year after requesting it under the Official Information Act. Even Isherwood, who left the army in 1999, had to make an OIA request before he was given a redacted version of his own report so he could write an account for the history of the Royal NZ Infantry Regiment to which Stewart belonged.
Certainly the army had reason to be embarrassed by the inquiry, which found there was inadequate instruction and preparation prior to the training exercise. It concluded, damningly, that the inadequate skill levels of the instructors – both of whom survived – were a major contributory factor in the deaths of the six servicemen.
The inquiry found that the instructor who remained on the mountain absolved himself of leadership responsibility when it was most required. Isherwood thinks the fact that Stewart stepped into the leadership vacuum made his actions even more commendable.
The inquiry also noted that the party had no communications equipment – on the face of it, an extraordinary omission.
The army went some way toward atoning for its treatment of Stewart and his fellow servicemen last year, 32 years after the event, when a plaque was unveiled in Stewart’s memory at Linton army camp. His mother, Kathleen Kotiro Stewart of Whakatane, jointly unveiled the plaque with the head of the army, Major General John Boswell.
Among those pushing for Stewart’s heroism to be properly recognised, it was welcomed as a belated step in the right direction. But it wasn’t enough, and this month’s brush-off from Hipkins is unlikely to be the last word on the affair.