Jamie Walker | July 26, 2008
A WOUNDED Australian soldier died in Afghanistan after his evacuation to hospital was delayed by a communications bungle, a senior Dutch military doctor has claimed.
Signaller Sean McCarthy, 25, the sixth Australian to be killed fighting the Taliban, was fatally injured in a bomb blast on July 8 while on patrol with the SAS.
Defence Force Chief Angus Houston has insisted the young man was airlifted out "immediately" after the attack in Oruzgan province in southern Afghanistan. Three other soldiers were injured, two of them also from the Australian SAS.
But Royal Netherlands Army emergency doctor Ed van der Zee, who was part of the Dutch medical team standing by at the Tarin Kowt military base to receive the casualties, says Signaller McCarthy did not reach hospital for two hours, instead of the anticipated 10 to 20 minutes.
By then, he had bled to death.
Lieutenant Colonel van der Zee says the incident has caused friction between the US military, which was responsible for medivac operations, and Dutch command at Tarin Kowt, where the bulk of Australia's army reconstruction taskforce, infantry and special forces are based.
In emails obtained by The Weekend Australian, Colonel van der Zee describes how US commanders refused to put a medivac chopper in the air until a helicopter gunship was available to escort it.
The mission was to come from the US airbase at Kandahar, 123km south of Tarin Kowt, in accordance with arrangements between the coalition partners. But Colonel van der Zee said US controllers "forgot" to inform the Dutch at Tarin Kowt that the assigned Apache escort helicopter was undergoing maintenance.
"It took two hours where it usually only takes 10-20 minutes," Colonel van der Zee complained in a July 15 email, outlining the delay in evacuating Signaller McCarthy.
In another email, Colonel van der Zee wrote: "He was badly injured on both legs. However, he was alive for an hour. We will never know what might have been or what we could have done."
The Australian and Dutch military have closed ranks, refusing to discuss Colonel van der Zee's allegations.
Contacted by email by this newspaper, Colonel van der Zee, who is still in Afghanistan, said he was not free to comment publicly on McCarthy's death.
He was at Tarin Kowt at the time of the attack on the Australians, but had not worked on McCarthy, who was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan and had received a commendation for his courage under fire.
"I wasn't directly involved in the care of the Australian soldier," Colonel van der Zee wrote. "I only know that it (the air evacuation) took two hours and he was dead on arrival."
The Australian Defence Force stands by Air Chief Marshal Houston's assertion that the wounded were evacuated "immediately following the incident" on July 8. "Despite receiving the best possible medical attention, Signaller McCarthy succumbed to his wounds," the ADF said in response to written questions submitted by The Weekend Australian.
While confirming that helicopters from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan had carried out the medivac operation, the ADF refused to say how far the SAS patrol was from Tarin Kowt when hit by a roadside bomb.
In announcing McCarthy's death, Air Chief Marshal Houston said the blast happened at about 3pm Australian time, mid-morning in southern Afghanistan. But the ADF would not give details to The Weekend Australian on when medivac helicopters arrived at the scene, how long it took for McCarthy to reach a field hospital and whether he was alive at that point.
An ADF spokesman said the information could not be released until an investigation ordered by Air Chief Marshal Houston had been completed.
Joel Fitzgibbon's office said yesterday the Defence Minister had been informed of Colonel van der Zee's allegations and was "eagerly awaiting" the outcome of the ADF review.
McCarthy's parents, who were hugged by Kevin Rudd at his military funeral, could not be reached at their Gold Coast address. The Prime Minister has warned more Australian deaths are likely as fighting intensifies with a resurgent Taliban.
Five of the six Australian military deaths to date happened in the past nine months, and another 40 diggers have been wounded.
Colonel van der Zee's allegations will add to concern about the level of support for Australian troops in the field in Afghanistan.
The most highly placed Australian soldier to serve in Iraq, Major General Jim Molan, a former chief of operations to the US commander of the multinational forces there, argues in a new book that the ADF had been "skewed too far ... away from war-fighting", and that Australia is no longer prepared "to fight a war involving sustained combat".
Colonel van der Zee says the Dutch command was dismayed that the Americans had not requested a Dutch Apache helicopter from Tarin