Court told how Timor unhinged a navy hero
by Les Kennedy
June 5, 2006
DAVID BUCK sat weeping in a gutter outside the Umina bowling club last August waiting for police to come and shoot him dead.
Wires protruded from a pack on his back and a bum bag around his waist. Alarmed staff inside the Central Coast club believed they were attached to an 11-kilogram bomb that terrorists hiding nearby would trigger if they did not hand over cash.
He had given staff a note, which read in part: "The Jew that handed you this note is wired with 11 kilograms of remotely detonated explosives. Raise no alarms … or I will detonate the explosives."
At 53, the career sailor, who had risen in 36 years of service with the navy from seaman to lieutenant commander, had fallen into a dark pit of depression from memories of horrific events he had witnessed during service in East Timor in 1999.
He had been pensioned off in 2004 and on the face of it had a happy, loving marriage with children. But visions of screaming, machete-wielding mobs and hacked bodies haunted his mind.
By August 8 he had lost all reason, believing in his descent into alcoholism that he had gambled away his savings, when in fact there was $20,000 in his bank account.
The only way out was "suicide by cop" - for police to kill him in the mistaken belief he was a terrorist - because he could not do the deed himself.
In the District Court on Friday, Judge Michael Finnane, QC, described Buck's case as tragic and bizarre: a case of post-traumatic stress disorder incurred as a result of his service in East Timor during Australia's peacekeeping intervention.
"He is a tragic and broken man who has been exposed in the course of the service in the navy to terrible events which it is hard for me to fully comprehend," Justice Finnane said in his decision not to jail Buck for demanding money with menaces. "He is someone who could properly be regarded as a hero." The judge placed Buck on a five-year good behaviour bond and ordered he continue to receive counselling to help him overcome depression and alcoholism.
Buck's wife has stood by him. She wore his officer's cap when he first faced Gosford Local Court after his arrest and saluted him in a show of support for his service to the navy. Buck's evidence in the trial was heartbreaking as he opened a window into his recurring nightmare.
He recounted 15 traumatic incidents from his time in East Timor that plague him still. "One was a young, probably four-year-old boy with compound fracture of the leg with the bone sticking out through the leg walking into where I was in a place called Rokakae," he said.
Another time he and two federal police officers came between two mobs "and basically tried to stop them from hacking each other to pieces". Buck recalled a day on a wrecked bridge near the same village when he stood alone and frightened in the face of 30 Timorese armed with knives and machetes demanding to cross, and was saved by a patrol. He had also saved a helicopter pilot from being killed by an angry mob for accidentally blowing the roofs off some homes when he landed.
In his judgement Justice Finnane said Buck should be given a sentence that "placed rehabilitation above all other factors". "The psychiatric evidence enables me to conclude he was in a very depressed state, was not thinking rationally and was probably suicidal. He has a chronic case of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is complicated by gambling and an alcohol addiction.
"He was seriously and adversely affected by 15 separate incidents in East Timor: one incident where he was threatened with death by 15 armed men. He is a casualty of war and deserves to be treated with compassion, rather than punishment."