19 May 2024

Australian soldiers who prepare parachutes tested positive for drugs before fatal jump

3:40 pm on 19 May 2024

Exclusive by ABC defence correspondent Andrew Greene

Silhouette of a parachute against a background sunset.

Lance Corporal Fitzgibbon sustained fatal injuries during a 'routine' parachute jump in a training exercise held at RAAF Base Richmond, with the accident now subject to four separate investigations including one by the New South Wales coroner. File photo Photo: 123RF

Members of a Sydney-based army unit that prepares parachutes for military exercises tested positive to illicit drugs just days before special forces soldier Jack Fitzgibbon was killed in a training jump.

The ABC can reveal six soldiers serving at RAAF Base Richmond failed comprehensive drug screening in mid-February and early March and are now facing possible expulsion from the defence force.

Military sources have confirmed five members of the army's 176 Air Dispatch Squadron were found to have taken prohibited substances, while another more senior soldier working in logistics who was not a parachute rigger tested positive to cocaine.

On 6 March, Lance Corporal Fitzgibbon sustained fatal injuries during a "routine" parachute jump in a training exercise held at RAAF Base Richmond, with the accident now subject to four separate investigations, including one by the New South Wales coroner.

Fitzgibbon, son of former Labor defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon, was a qualified parachutist and a member of 2nd Commando Regiment, which is also based in Sydney.

The 33-year-old special forces soldier received first aid at the accident scene but died later at Sydney's Westmead Hospital, prompting defence to immediately pause all parachute exercises.

Inside military ranks there are suspicions Lance Corporal Fitzgibbon was forced to pack his own parachute before his fatal jump.

However, a senior army figure insists the riggers who in fact prepared Lance Corporal Fitzgibbon's equipment before his jump did not test positive to drugs.

"The two packers and two checkers, they were tested, and they were negative," an army officer familiar with the initial accident response told the ABC.

Another long-serving member of 176 Air Dispatch Squadron, which includes the 39 Aerial Delivery Equipment Platoon that rigs parachutes before jumps, says the positive drug tests put further pressure on an already stretched and overworked small unit.

"These positive drug tests happened within a single understaffed platoon, which was already 30 percent below capacity, and that's the problem," the army figure told the ABC, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to comment publicly.

A series of random and targeted drug tests involving urine and hair follicle samples were launched by the army after a junior soldier tested positive to an illicit substance on 9 February following a music festival in Victoria.

Fitzgibbon's family has declined to comment on the revelations of positive drug tests at 176 Air Dispatch Squadron but is receiving regular updates from the army about the accident investigations.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the revelations would be further difficult news for the family.

"This is of concern," Albanese said.

"I can't comment on the detail, because clearly the ADF's investigations are ongoing. And that's why my thoughts will be with the family and friends of Jack Fitzgibbon."

Earlier this month, the army announced parachute training operations would resume but special forces personnel would not be able to use their main type of freefall parachute for an indefinite period.

Special Forces Group Commander Brigadier Marcus Fogarty said seven of the eight types of parachutes used by defence had been cleared for use, but the "Military Javelin" version used by Fitzgibbon would not be returned to service until it was cleared by formal inquiries.

The Defence Department has declined to comment on the positive drug tests as independent inquiries into the accident are completed by the New South Wales coroner, inspector-general of the ADF and Comcare, alongside an internal army investigation.

- This story was first published by ABC