12 June 1996
Casualties in military service are not limited to deployments, indeed, the majority of injuries occur during sports, training, and motor vehicle accidents. Some of these incidents can have tragic consequences.
Soon after dark on 12 June 1996, six Blackhawk helicopters were participating in a Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) counter-terrorist training exercise near Townsville. The pilots used night vision goggles as they flew in tight formation towards the target area. Just 30 seconds from the landing zone, one helicopter veered right and clipped the rotor of another helicopter. One Blackhawk crashed immediately, killing 12 personnel, while the other was able to land but burst into flames, killing a further six soldiers. Ground staff and medics, along with crash survivors and personnel from the other helicopters, risked their lives to rescue their comrades and retrieve bodies from what must have seemed like a battlefield. An isolated location, darkness, ammunition rounds going off, flames, and explosions in the crashed helicopters created a dangerous and disturbing scene. In addition to the 18 deaths, many others were seriously injured. Fourteen personnel were later recognised for their bravery.
Although it remains the worst peacetime loss of life for the Australian Defence Force, several other helicopter accidents have occurred in non-combat scenarios over the past two decades. Training and transport accidents in other areas of military life have also resulted in several more deaths and injuries over the years.
While we must obviously minimise the occurrence of accidents, perhaps they are an inevitable part of training our military personnel to do a difficult and dangerous job. We must recognise, however, that these events – like military deployments – have the potential to result in significant psychological adjustment problems. In some ways, adjustment to accidental injury may be more difficult; the recognition and support that personnel receive following a deployment-related injury may not be there to the same extent following a training accident. Yet the key elements such as threat to life, fear, injury, pain, and loss of career are the same. It is vital that we provide the same level of care and support for those with physical or psychological injuries resulting from training accidents as we do for those injured on deployment.