Soldiers doused in fuel, set on fire by Molotov during riot training

Three soldiers are left with mental and physical scars more than a year after being doused in fuel and burned by a Molotov cocktail during a training exercise.

Relationship breakdowns, strange looks from children, panic attacks and what has been described as ‘pyrophobia’ – a fear of hot things – plague them due to the inability of the New Zealand Defense Force to protect them.

Defense forces were fined $354,750 in Palmerston North District Court on Tuesday for failing to take action to protect soldiers.

The fine would have been less, but Judge Jonathan Krebs increased it due to the defense force’s track record of violating health and safety rules.

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The Defense Force was also ordered to pay $100,000 in reparations for emotional harm, split among the three soldiers injured at Linton Army Camp in August 2020.

The incident occurred during Operation Venom, a six-week exercise for a specialist unit that would deploy at short notice to undertake peacekeeping.

This required them to undergo specialized training, including knowing how to handle Molotov cocktails, as they would not have time for pre-mission training.

Operation Venom culminated in two nights of mock riot training, with a squad of soldiers acting as rioters opposing those being trained.

The incident happened on the second night, when trainees were sent against rioters using water, flour and Molotovs.

The number of “rioters” was much greater, creating a less structured environment.

A risk management plan was created, but not followed, with trainees not wearing flame retardant clothing.

They had also been doused in fuel by a “rioter” who managed to grab a can of fuel and climb onto a shipping container.

The Molotov that was thrown was supposed to crash into a cinder block surface, but skidded and shattered on a container near the sprayed trainees.

The incident at Linton Army Camp left three men with physical and psychological injuries.  (File photo)

David Unwin / Stuff

The incident at Linton Army Camp left three men with physical and psychological injuries. (File photo)

Two doused in fuel caught fire, one setting fire to a third person as they instinctively ran.

They were extinguished by security personnel on site.

Judge Jonathan Krebs said the risk management plan required trainees to wear fire-retardant clothing, but those in command at night changed that.

The person who threw the Molotov had no previous experience, which was another failure.

Finally, there was no adequate monitoring of the fuel stock to prevent the “rioter” from pouring it out.

Army chief Major General John Boswell said the army had

PROVIDED

Army Chief Major General John Boswell said the army had “an absolute obligation to support our people”.

Statements from the three soldiers, all of which have their names permanently removed, were read out at the start of the hearing.

They suffered various physical injuries, ranging from superficial burns to up to 20% of their bodies, including their faces, being burned.

One of them spent the better part of three weeks in hospital, had to undergo three surgeries and was still in pain.

But the psychological scars were arguably the worst.

The soldier who suffered the most burns said the smell of fuel and panic attacks suffered during similar situations at the training exercise made him wonder if he could stay in the army .

Another soldier said he fell into a deep depression, drinking heavily so he could sleep without having nightmares.

Judge Jonathan Krebs has increased the fine for the New Zealand Defense Force due to his previous convictions for breaching health and safety laws.

John Cowpland/Alphapix

Judge Jonathan Krebs has increased the fine for the New Zealand Defense Force due to his previous convictions for breaching health and safety laws.

The other soldier said he easily went from a “zombie-like state” to an erratic state, while having to take a moment to watch movies that might trigger it.

Army chief Major General John Boswell told the court what happened to the trio was absolutely not their fault and should never have happened.

He had met with them to express his regret, both personally and on behalf of the military, for what had happened.

“We have an absolute obligation as a military to continue to support our people.”

The Defense Force’s duty to guard soldiers has been a concern since 2013, when a review that revealed various issues with its security record was released in 2013.

Thirty-four staff members have died in work-related incidents since 2001, only seven of them in combat.

There were also 54 serious injuries between 2016 and 2020.

WorkSafe has met regularly with the Defense Force to discuss its health and safety record and has charged it with various alleged and proven health and safety deficiencies.

Their attorney in court on Tuesday, John Rooney, said the defense force had taken various steps to investigate and correct any issues.

He held his own court of inquiry, and the military police prosecuted various people through their own internal processes, resulting in fines and loss of seniority.

A moratorium was imposed on the use of incendiary devices in similar exercises after the incident, which remains in place today.

The military regularly reviewed its health and safety policies to ensure it was keeping soldiers safe, he said.


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Richard V. Johnson