Hugh Poate (right) says Brian Freeman has taken advantage of families of fallen soldiers. (Supplied)
The father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan has called for a full police investigation into the founder of a collapsed veterans’ charity that was shut down by the federal regulator.
The ABC’s 7.30 this week revealed concerns by some Afghanistan veterans and families of fallen soldiers that money donated to Walking Wounded was not used for stated aims such as counselling and rehabilitation services.
Early last year the charity had its status revoked by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, which is prevented under its Act from explaining why it took this action.
Hugh Poate’s son Private Robert Poate was killed on operations in Oruzgan province, Afghanistan, in August 2012.
Walking Wounded founder Brian Freeman at the end of a trek from far north Queensland to southern Tasmania. (ABC News: Lauren Day)
Mr Poate and his wife Janny supported Walking Wounded and its founder Brian Freeman, who promotes himself as a former special forces officer.
But Mr Poate says he became concerned when he started to hear that no counselling services and professional rehabilitation were being provided.
“When we realised that it wasn’t happening, that again elevated our concern to a higher level … we were just hearing from the veterans themselves that nothing was happening,” Mr Poate said.
7.30 also revealed this week that Queensland police are investigating a complaint against Walking Wounded and Brian Freeman alleging $1.3 million was defrauded from the charity.
Mr Poate has called for Queensland’s fraud squad to take on the case.
“It’s the manner in which the funds have been raised, I think Mr Freeman has been taking advantage of the misfortunes of people such as families of the fallen soldiers, and the soldiers themselves and that is despicable,” Mr Poate said.
The ABC has spoken to another family who lost a son in Afghanistan who became involved in Walking Wounded in the early days of the charity.
The Poate Family celebrating their final Christmas together with Private Robert Poate (right) in December 2011. (Supplied)
But after time, it appeared to them that Walking Wounded “was really just the Brian Freeman travel company, so we pulled away from it. We never met one veteran who was helped by Walking Wounded”.
Brian Freeman declined to be interviewed by 7.30 but in an email unequivocally denied Walking Wounded had not helped veterans, saying it had helped particularly by taking them on treks to places like Kokoda.
Porters say they’re owed money
Mr Freeman did not answer specific questions on the use of funds and why the charity’s status was revoked.
He also did not respond to claims that he owed tens of thousands of dollars to a Papua New Guinea company that helped arrange Mr Freeman’s Kokoda treks.
The director of local porter business Kokoda Mateship, Kila Eddie, told 7.30 Mr Freeman owes his company 103,550 Papua New Guinea Kina ($40,000).
Mr Eddie later provided a copy of the outstanding bill to the ABC, which states the treks took place in 2013 (by Mr Freeman’s previous adventure company) and in September 2014.
He said he has tried to recoup the money from Mr Freeman without success.
“If Brian Freeman has not paid those people I find that unconscionable,” said Mr Poate, who walked the Kokoda trek in 2013.
“Those people, those porters are today’s modern-day versions of the fuzzy wuzzy angels of 1942. In fact, many of them are descendants of the fuzzy wuzzy angels. If that’s true, I think that’s just deplorable.”
Mr Freeman told the ABC that both Mr and Mrs Poate were sponsored to go to Kokoda.
“No, Brian said one would be sponsored and the other one had to pay $6,250 and that was the case for everybody,” Mr Poate said.
“This raises the question as as to whether we were sponsored in addition to our own payment … was our participation paid twice.”
Houston, Cosgrove deny writing chapter in Freeman book
In a long email to the ABC Mr Freeman defended his service towards helping veterans, saying he had high-profile support from former army chiefs including Sir Peter Cosgrove and Sir Angus Houston.
Mr Freeman wrote a book called Walking Wounded, which was published in 2013, about taking Afghanistan veterans on the Kokoda trail, featuring a chapter about the two former army chiefs.
He wrote to the ABC: “You will note that Chapter 13 in the book Walking Wounded is written by Sir Angus Houston and the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove.”
The ABC contacted Sir Peter Cosgrove and Sir Angus Houston about Mr Freemans’ assertions and both denied that they had ever written a chapter for Mr Freeman’s book.
7.30 also reported this week that the Office of the Governor-General did not approve of a testimonial on Mr Freeman’s new commercial venture’s website, and had repeatedly asked for it to be removed.
However, Mr Freeman said “General Cosgrove did write the testimonial prior to taking office as the GG.”