Victoria Cross winner in inquiry’s sights

Australia’s most decorated soldier Benjamin Roberts-Smith is the only former soldier who has identified himself as a subject of the Brereton report and now the squadron he served in with distinction has been disbanded on the orders of the Chief of the Army.However, the name of the Victoria Cross recipient (who has repeatedly denied any…

Australia’s most decorated soldier Benjamin Roberts-Smith is the only former soldier who has identified himself as a subject of the Brereton report and now the squadron he served in with distinction has been disbanded on the orders of the Chief of the Army.

However, the name of the Victoria Cross recipient (who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing) is entirely redacted in the Brereton report for legal reasons, a protocol that Defence is strictly following for all of the soldiers who have spoken to investigators.

While noting that Ben Roberts-Smith had chosen to identify himself and respond to some allegations are in the public domain, Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell said Defence had chosen to not identify any individuals potentially discussed in the report.

Some allegations are detailed in pages that are entirely redacted and ‘blacked out’ for legal reasons.

“I won’t speak to any individuals. I realise the individuals have the right to speak for themselves, but as a point of consistency, both in terms of incidents and individuals, and in the integrity of processes that unfold into the future, that is going to be the position Defence takes,” General Campbell said.

“No incidents, no names, nothing that in any way might undermine or discredit any process or ultimately any court proceeding.”

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Last week, Mr Roberts-Smith confirmed he welcomed the appointment of a special investigator to test the claims.

“I welcome the announcement today by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence which has for the first time accurately clarified that it was no part of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force’s (IGADF) remit to make any findings of fact in relation to rumours concerning special forces soldiers,” he said.

“It is heartening to hear that these matters, which have been the subject of rumours for years, will now be examined by a Special Investigator’s Office with expertise and experience to consider evidence not rumours and make decisions based on evidence rather than on unsubstantiated rumours.

“It is regrettable that the IGADF Inquiry took such an extraordinarily long time to be finalised. While I appreciate the complexity of the task ahead for the Special Investigator, I am hopeful that this next phase will be completed as expeditiously as possible so that all the current and former special forces soldiers who have been deeply impacted by the Inquiry process can move on with their lives.”

The 42-year-old former soldier left the Army as a Corporal in 2013. He was deployed to Afghanistan in the second Special Air Service unit in 2009, 2010 and 2012

By the time he was awarded the Victoria Cross, he had previously been awarded the Medal for Gallantry for actions taken in Afghanistan in May and June 2006.

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General Campbell confirmed on Thursday that the Perth-based second Special Air Service would be disbanded effectively wiping the unit from the army’s history.

“With regard to the Army as order of battle – the organisational structure of the Army – a short while ago, the Chief of the Army advised the Special Air Service Regiment that the second Special Air Service squadron would be struck off the Army orbat.

“Not because it was the only squadron involved in these issues, but because it was at a time one of the squadron as involved in the allegations made and there will be a permanent record by striking that squadron title from the Army orbat of this period.

“The Chief of the Army will work over time to adjust and then re-raise a different squadron, titled differently.”

Benjamin Roberts-Smith joined the Australian Army in 1996 before being selected for Australia’s elite Special Air Service Regiment just seven years later.

The act of heroism that secured his Victoria Cross occurred just three years later, on his third deployment to Afghanistan, in June, 2010.

Corporal Roberts-Smith was part of a helicopter assault into Tizak, Shah Wali Kot in Kandahar Province, aimed at capturing or killing a senior Taliban commander.

According to the Defence Force’s official history of the incident, “immediately upon insertion the troop came under heavy fire. Two soldiers were wounded and the troop was pinned down by fire from multiple machine gun positions situated both on the high ground and the buildings to their front.”

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“Corporal Roberts-Smith and his patrol began an assault on an enemy position that contained three machine guns, which were protected behind a high wall and on an elevated position. At times the gunfire was so close and sustained that some patrol members were unable to return fire,” it states.

“Within 40 metres of the enemy position the fire was so heavy the patrol was unable to advance further. At this point Corporal Roberts-Smith identified a small structure that provided some cover. As he approached the structure he engaged an insurgent, killing him instantly. Corporal Roberts-Smith then exposed his own position to draw fire away from his patrol. This allowed the patrol to fire against the enemy and the patrol commander to silence one of the machine guns with a grenade.

“Seizing the advantage, Corporal Roberts-Smith stormed the enemy position killing the remaining two machine gunners. His actions enabled his patrol to break into the enemy position thus regaining the initiative for the troop, allowing them to close with the enemy. The troop continued to fight for another six hours, killing further enemy and causing the remainder of the Taliban to retreat from the area.”

Corporal Roberts-Smith said at the time, “It got to the point where it was like … I’m not going to sit here while one of the boys gets hit. I thought I’d just have a crack.”

The Victoria Cross is the pre-eminent award for acts of bravery in wartime, and Australia’s highest military honour.

Corporal Roberts-Smith later attended an audience with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in November 2011.

“Her Majesty speaks to quite a lot of soldiers,” Corporal Roberts-Smith said, “so she was interested in Afghanistan and it was a great opportunity for me to tell her about what everyone else in my patrol did that day, as opposed to just myself.”

The Victoria Cross was created by Queen Victoria in 1856 and made retrospective to 1854 to include the Crimean War.

Only one hundred Australians have ever been awarded the Victoria Cross and the vast majority – 96- were awarded the Victoria Cross before 1975.

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