The Defence Force has confirmed Corporal Dominic Abelen as the New Zealander killed in Ukraine.
In a statement this afternoon, the Defence Force said the 30-year-old had served with the 2nd/1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment based in Burnham, but had been on a period of leave without pay and was not on active duty.
His father also released a statement through the Defence Force, saying Corporal Abelen had always thought of others.
“Dominic was in the NZ Army for 10 years but never got to fight for his country,” he said.
“He didn’t tell us he was going to Ukraine until he was there. He knew we would talk him out of it. He also knew the risks of going there but still went to fight for them.”
Corporal Abelen had loved being in the army, and the family fully supported what he did and held no grudge against the New Zealand or Ukraine Armies, he said.
“A kind, gentle man with the most infectious smile that you couldn’t help but smile back. He had a love of the outdoors and did a lot of tramping. He spent his holidays travelling around New Zealand and the world.
“I’m extremely proud of my children and especially Dominic for standing up and doing what he thought was right. He leaves a massive hole in all our hearts.”
His siblings said he had made everyone who knew him proud, and was the “embodiment of drive and power”.
“He is the most bold, brave and beautiful human with the quickest wit and freely given laugh. Our hearts are broken. He sacrificed his life for others to have a life,” one said.
“Not only was he my big brother, my role model, my support, but he was for many others too. He took the army brotherhood to a new level, showing it’s not about how hard you are but how hard you work,” said another.
“A career driven man, a reliable brother who always had our backs, a favourite and very much loved uncle.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to New Zealand Vasyl Myroshnychenko has offered his condolences to Abelen’s family and other loved ones, saying the soldier had “died in action courageously defending the precious values of freedom, human rights and democracy in Europe. Ukrainians will always remember his sacrifice”.
Defence Force not informed of decision to travel to Ukraine
Acting Chief of Army Brigadier Rose King said Corporal Abelen had been with the Defence Force for 10 years.
“Any loss of one of our whānau is deeply felt across the New Zealand Defence Force. We are concentrating our efforts on supporting Corporal Abelen’s loved ones and our personnel as they grieve,” she said.
The NZDF clarified that uniformed members taking leave without pay were normally considered to be serving and were subject to various Defence Force orders but able to pursue other employment opportunities and travel, with approval required to enter some countries – including Ukraine.
Corporal Abelen’s leave request had not included plans to travel to Ukraine, the statement said, and the NZDF was still inquiring into the circumstances of the particular case.
“It is not known how many NZDF personnel on leave without pay may be in Ukraine. No personnel have been approved by NZDF to enter the country,” the statement said.
“The NZDF does not know how many ex-serving personnel may have travelled to Ukraine. When a person leaves the Defence Force, the NZDF does not track their movements.”
It said Corporal Abelen was not a member of any contingent which deployed as part of the Defence Force’s support of the efforts in Ukraine.
Corporal Abelen’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Cory Neale, described him as a “quality junior non-commissioned officer, a trusted go-to member of his company and an absolute character who genuinely cared for his soldiers and friends”.
“He will be missed, but also remembered long into the future.”
Minister of Defence Peeni Henare said at no point in time since the conflict began had any NZDF personnel been authorised to enter Ukraine, and “I’ve been advised that none have”.
“In the first instance can we express our sorrow and condolences to the family of Corporal Abelen for their loss,” he said.
“With respect to Corporal Abelen, he was on leave without pay … I’m advised that as they take leave without pay they are asked to instruct on where they travel internationally, unfortunately in this case I understand that wasn’t advised that they would be going to Ukraine.
“The New Zealand Defence Force, on the advice of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, won’t be approving any leave without pay for personnel to be travelling to Ukraine.
“I just need to trust that the process for those who do apply for leave without pay are quite clear at the begining … they know the expectations from the NZDF and this government that Ukraine is a no-go zone.”
Henare said very little was known about the circumstances surrounding Corporal Abelen’s death.
“I consider all of our NZDF personnel heroes, they are ambassadors and great leaders for our community and our country.”
He said he had no details on whether Corporal Abelen had been in any other paid employment.
Government working to repatriate body
The NZDF said it was supporting consular officials, seeking formal identification and repatriation, but noted “the very difficult circumstances of doing so in a conflict zone”.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta said support was being offered from on the ground in Warsaw, Poland, to repatriate Corporal Abelen’s body, “but as has previously been advised we’re limited in what we can do”.
She said he would be repatriated as a citizen, not as a soldier.
“We will do as much as we can through our consular support to be able to work with the Ukrainian government and the family around next steps.”
She said the travel advisory had not changed, and New Zealanders should not travel to Ukraine.
“We are not advising New Zealanders to go to Ukraine … New Zealand’s travel advisory is not to go to Ukraine, they make a decision to go there based on their own risks assessments – which are high.”
People overseas who may need New Zealand support should sign up to the Safe Travel register of the country they were in, she said.
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