Defense Minister, Armed Forces Commander step down over soldiers death in Mali

Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and Commander Tom Middendorp visit Dutch soldiers on NATO mission in Lithuania, 10 Apr 2017
Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and Commander Tom Middendorp visit Dutch soldiers on NATO mission in Lithuania, 10 Apr 2017. Photo: Ministry of Defense

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert stepped down as Minister of Defense. After hours of on Tuesday evening, she took the political responsibility for negligence in the Defense organization that resulted in the death of two soldiers in Mali last year. Commander of the Armed Forces Tom Middendorp also resigned.

According to NU.nl's blog of the debate, the last words Hennis spoke to the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, were: "I realize that at different times human action and non-action combined created the context for the tragic events in which two soldiers died and a third soldier was severely injured. That is unacceptable. For this I am politically responsible. I take that responsibility. I take it fully. The past years I always acted in honor and conscience and served on Defense with heart, soul and pleasure. But it stops here today. I quit as Minister of Defense. I will ask the King to release me with immediate effect."

"The Commander of the Armed Forces also decided to step down immediately. This is his decision and his decision alone. I respect that. I would like to thank him for his tireless efforts. The mutual trust was and is great. It was a privilege to cooperate with him, and also with all the staff of Defense. Soldiers and citizens. All of them special people. Unique people to whom I owe a lot of thanks."

According to the Volkskrant, Middendorp already planned to transfer command to a successor later this week. The ceremony scheduled for Thursday, has been canceled.

"There can be no doubt about the integrity of a Commander of the armed forces", Middendorp said in a speech about his resignation, according to NU.nl. He explained that he felt the consequences of budget cuts at Defense every day over the past five years. He emphasized that the death of the two soldiers in Mali were not a result of that. "It hurts me to leave this way." He added that his resignation stands in stark contrast to the loss of the two soldiers in Mali.

During his farewell speech, Middendorp praised Hennis "I experienced her as a warrior and a minister who does not look away if something goes wrong", Middendorp said.

The direct reason for Hennis' resignation is the in July 2016. They were killed, and a third soldier seriously injured, when a mortar grenade exploded while still in the firing tube during a training exercise. Last week the Dutch Safety Board . The Board's reconstruction of events showed that the grenades used in the Mali mission were not tested after being purchased under time pressure for a mission in Afghanistan in 2006, later identified defects were ignored, and they were then transported and stored incorrectly.

If that was the only serious incident at Defense, Hennis may have been able to keep her job, according to the Volkskrant. But that is not the case. In March 2016, Corps Commando sergeant and instructor fired by a training soldier at a shooting range in Ossendrecht. Investigation into that incident showed that the , unsuitable and unapproved, and that the training happened without proper guidance. This incident led to Commando soldiers prfor the first time ever. 

In 2015, also in Mali, Rene Zeetsen (30) and Ernst Mollinger (26) d due to a technical malfunction. In 2014 there was also a critical report by the Safety Board on the safety of Hercules transport aircraft in Eindhoven. In the report last week, the Safety Board concluded that Defense does not seem willing to learn from previous mistakes made, according to the Volkskrant.

All parties in the Tweede Kamer held that conclusion in particular against Hennis in the debate on Tuesday, according to the newspaper. They also criticized Hennis' performance after the publication of the Safety Board's report. The Board already sent a draft version of the report to the Ministry of Defense in June. Yet Hennis only paused missions for a thorough inspection of equipment and ammunition after the report was released to the public last week. 

Hennis defended herself. "We immediately announced a very thorough inspection in the summer. Immediately after we received the report. That was already ongoing before we implemented this pause", she said, according to the Volkskrant. 

Another point of critique from the parliamentarians was that Hennis did not immediately contact the two killed soldiers' after the Safety Board's report was released last week. Hennis said she did so on the advice of officials. "Experience show that people are not always waiting for a politician." She wanted to give them time to process. After the relatives told Middendorp that they would have appreciated contact, Hennis immediately called them.

The relatives of the two killed soldiers already announced that they are . "Defense is 100 percent responsible for the death of my son." the mother of one soldier said. The father of the other called it "death by negligence"

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