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NZDF apologises to aircraftman for its handling of her assault complaint

Author
Jeremy Wilkinson,
Publish Date
Sun, 13 Aug 2023, 4:29pm
The New Zealand Defence Force has apologised to a former aircraftman for its handling of her assault complaint. . Photo / NZDF
The New Zealand Defence Force has apologised to a former aircraftman for its handling of her assault complaint. . Photo / NZDF

NZDF apologises to aircraftman for its handling of her assault complaint

Author
Jeremy Wilkinson,
Publish Date
Sun, 13 Aug 2023, 4:29pm

The New Zealand Defence Force has apologised to a former Air Force employee for its handling of a complaint she made against a superior officer who she claims drunkenly groped her while she sober drove colleagues to a function.

Former leading aircraftman Nicole Leger used the public platform of her own court martial to highlight what she claimed were discrepancies in the way her complaint was handled versus how she was treated.

Leger was court-martialled for taking MDMA at a party and then touching the shoulders of a sleeping colleague several months after her own assault in 2020. She claimed she unknowingly took the drug, commonly known as ecstasy.

Leger received a severe reprimand at her court martial earlier in 2022 and has since left the military but used the final day of her trial to expose what she called the hypocrisy of the complaints system within the armed forces saying she was dragged through “two years of hell” while the subject of her own complaint received no punishment.

She told the court that her offending paled in comparison to the actions of her drunken sergeant months before who groped her multiple times while she drove him and other colleagues to a function.

“Due to the dramatic differences in how these incidents were handled by my unit I am left with major questions about how I was treated by the NZDF as a victim of a sexual assault, [compared] with how I’ve been treated as a person about whom a complaint was made,” Leger told the court at the time.

Nicole Leger at the first part of her court martial in 2021. Photo / Supplied

Nicole Leger at the first part of her court martial in 2021. Photo / Supplied

NZME can now reveal that following Leger’s court martial and her public outing of the way her own complaint was handled that the NZDF reopened its investigation and the sergeant was taken to summary trial where he was found guilty of common assault and received a reprimand last year.

He retained name suppression and his trial wasn’t proactively broadcast to the nation’s media by the Defence Force in the same way that Leger’s was.

Leger has maintained that it had always been a tale of two complaints and the differing ways they were handled made it unsurprising that more women don’t complain.

She believes “the only reason this even went to trial is because I made such a big fuss about it at my court martial. Before then they had barely investigated my complaint”.

“I don’t think he should have been court martialled, but ... I was, so ... why wasn’t he?”

Leger said she didn’t think the man deserved to lose his job over the incident but the way it was handled lacked respect.

A factor she found sadly ironic given that the NZDF’s recently-implemented harassment policy was titled “Operation Respect”.

“I was made to feel like I was over-dramatising the situation,” Leger said about the complaint she’d made.

“It was like it wasn’t a big deal ... but it was to me.”

Leger has left the military and has returned home to Canada but she made a complaint to the Human Rights Commission about her treatment in the New Zealand Defence Force.

After she made that complaint an apology letter was sent to Leger from Colonel Jason Dyhrberg who is the superior commander of the unit she served in for several years.

“I apologise for the procedural errors made and the distress that this caused you,” the letter reads.

“I acknowledge that the processes the NZDF applied following the assault you experienced in November 2019 were not compliant with our internal procedures. In particular, I acknowledge the distress you suffered due to the offending you experienced in 2019 and the time it took for the matter to be addressed appropriately.”

The letter from Colonel Dyhrberg goes on to say that the NZDF takes unacceptable behaviour seriously and does everything it can to address issues when it’s made aware of them.

“Your experience highlights the need for the NZDF to remain vigilant in addressing these behaviours.

 “I commend your courage in coming forward with your complaint and I acknowledge your candidness in sharing your experience.”

Leger said she felt vindicated in receiving the letter but it was a shame she had to make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission to get an apology.

The letter also thanked Leger for her service which she said was the only person in her unit to say that to her.

“It was really hard to move on until I got that letter but it’s helped to seal the wound ... I was holding on to a lot of anger and this has certainly helped alleviate that,” she said.

“It was less than a page long but it was that meaningful.”

Jeremy Wilkinson is an Open Justice reporter based in Manawatū covering courts and justice issues with an interest in tribunals. He has been a journalist for nearly a decade and has worked for NZME since 2022.

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