Shocking report casts shadow over war hero’s honours
Pressure is mounting in Canberra over the future of war hero Ben Roberts-Smith's military honours, with concerns that his Victoria Cross - Australia's highest military honour - may have to be revoked.
Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell has confirmed he will review valour, gallantry and bravery awards, following a shocking report from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force which alleges 25 Australian Special Forces soldiers were involved in murdering 39 people in Afghanistan.
The inquiry chief, Justice Paul Brereton, recommended reviews of individual awards, along with removal of group citations, as he referred 19 Special Forces soldiers to police. None were publicly identified.
Mr Roberts-Smith, 42, has publicly confirmed he was under investigation by the IGADF, and that he had been referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation in 2018. He has strongly and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in Afghanistan.
As the holder of a Victoria Cross, the Medal for Gallantry and other awards, Mr Robert-Smith is Australia's most decorated living soldier. He was invested with the honour in 2011 after he displayed "most conspicuous gallantry in action of great peril" during a helicopter assault in Afghanistan in June 2010.
But there are now active discussions underway in Canberra political and military circles into how to manage the potential revocation of individual awards.
Two sources told News Corp that Mr Roberts-Smith may face revocation, and that such a move would be unprecedented.
The last Victoria Cross was revoked in 1908, and there have been no revocations since King George V made clear in July 1920 that the Sovereign's wish was that they should not be revoked.
However, Queen Elizabeth II agreed to changes in 1991 that created the Victoria Cross for Australia, which has since been awarded just four times.
Under the new arrangements, the Sovereign does not revoke the honour. Rather, it is done by the Governor-General on the basis of a recommendation from the Australian Government.
General Campbell said in relation to "valour, gallantry or bravery, those are matters that should be dealt with appropriately after any further processes or meetings are concluded and that is the way that we will be approaching that.''
One senior Member of Parliament told News Corp there should be no move against anyone's honours unless they had been convicted of a criminal offence.
Another MP said the issue was extremely sensitive, but that holders of such honours needed to be held to the highest standard.
A third MP said: "anything that might have happened later doesn't take away from the act of bravery'' which resulted in Mr Roberts-Smith being bestowed with the VC.
Mr Roberts-Smith's lawyer did not return News Corp's calls. The former soldier is suing the Nine media group over their reporting of his actions in Afghanistan, and the controversy surrounding him has already rendered his position difficult, as he has been unable to undertake the usual duties of a VC recipient such as give speeches at important military occasions such as Anzac Day, or be appointed to any Government boards or positions.
Governor-General David Hurley did not respond to questions yesterday about the process for revoking military honours such as VCs.
When Mr Roberts-Smith retired from the Army in 2013, Mr Hurley, in his former role as Chief of the Defence Force, said a number of Australian personnel owed their lives to Mr Roberts-Smith's courage and determination.
"He is one of a rare few throughout history who have shown such selfless dedication to their mission and mates," he said in a statement.
John Howard, the former prime minister who sent troops to Afghanistan following the September 11 terror attacks in the US in 2001, said yesterday he remained "intensely proud'' of the soldiers who served there.
However, he said he was "distressed'' at the content of the Brereton report.
"Its findings are damning of the behaviour of a small group of Special Forces personnel who it is claimed, among other things, were responsible for the unlawful killing of thirty nine Afghani citizens,'' he said.
"The report explicitly states that none of them lost their lives in the heat of battle. Such conduct is totally at odds with the values, beliefs and practices of our military forces.''
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, a former Army officer, said yesterday she had received the report from Justice Brereton two weeks ago and "it made me physically ill.''
"It was a very distressing read,'' she told a business breakfast in Perth.
STOKES PAYING WAR HERO'S LEGAL FEES
Billionaire Kerry Stokes has confirmed for the first time he is paying Ben Roberts-Smith's legal fees, and says the embattled war hero has put up his Victoria Cross and other medals as collateral.
Mr Roberts-Smith, 42, has publicly confirmed he was under investigation by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF), and that the Australian Federal Police had been investigating him since 2018.
He strongly denies any wrongdoing, and is suing the Nine media group for their reporting of his actions in Afghanistan.
Mr Stokes, the owner of rival media group Seven West Media, has so far loaned Mr Roberts-Smith $1 million to fund his defamation action, and confirmed for the first time yesterday that he had provided the money, and that Mr Roberts-Smith had put up his VC, and other medals, as collateral.
"As I said at last week's AGM, Ben Roberts-Smith VC is a very valuable employee of Seven West Media, has achieved great results in Queensland for us and enjoys our full support,'' Mr Stokes said in a statement.
"The funding of his legal action is a private matter, however he has put his medals up as collateral on a loan and will relinquish them if required.
"If this eventuates, I will donate his medals with Ben's approval to the Australian War Memorial, as I have done so with other VC's and medals in the past.''
Mr Stokes is the chairman of the Australian War Memorial and has purchased around 10 medals including VCs and donated them to the museum.
Confirmation that Mr Stokes is paying Mr Roberts-Smith's legal defence raises another complex issue.
Mr Roberts-Smith is employed by Mr Stokes as general manager of Seven West Media Queensland.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds declined to comment on the financial arrangement between Mr Stokes and Mr Roberts-Smith.
RESPONSIBILITY STOPS AT TOP SAY FORMER DEFENCE MINISTERS
Australians bestow a "kill and risk being killed" burden on its Special Forces and should not forget the sacrifice of all who have served over the apparent crimes of a few, honorary member of 2 Commando and former Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said.
Dr Nelson, who served as Defence Minister for two years during the 2005 to 2016 scope of the Brereton inquiry, appealed to the public to not lose sight troops get deployed overseas to maintain the freedoms and values we all enjoy.
The alleged sins of a few did not reflect all who deployed.
But he also said he and other former and current politicians shoulder some burden too as the ones who deployed the troops time and time again.
The Brereton Inquiry found Special Forces, largely SAS and 2 Commando regiments, were the "tip of the spear" of the overall deployment, faced the most enemy contacts and received the most gallantry decorations.
But the inquiry findings concluded in doing multiple deployments on a protracted basis in Afghanistan "detracted from their intended role in the conduct of irregular and unconventional operations, and contributed to a wavering moral compass, and to declining psychological health."
"In our national reaction to this and as the legal process works through, the important thing for us as a nation is to make sure that we can continue to be a people that are worthy of the sacrifices that these men in Special Forces have made for us and continue to make," he told News Corp Australia.
"I also think it is important that we as Australians, we have outsourced the responsibility to do this, to kill and risk being killed in certain circumstances, to these men who have carried an extremely heavy burden for our country.
"The finding against 25 for heinous breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict now to be investigated should not blind us to all that has been given to us by them.
"And I've said all along, where do we as politicians line up in all of this, we are the ones that kept sending them and I include myself in "the we" and the chain of command?"
Dr Nelson, who also went on to serve as Australian War Memorial director, said he has been at the AWM's Roll of Honour with the widows of the Special Forces, to see the names of their late husbands or partner's added, including some widows as new mothers of children born while their loved ones were deployed overseas and would now never know their dads.
"It was heart breaking to see and that's part of the price these men and their families have paid for doing this and they are absolutely first rate people and overwhelmingly extraordinarily brave people," he said.
Former Defence Minister in the Rudd government Joel Fitzgibbon agreed it was a culture of a minority and the majority were courageous Aussies who put their life on the line and that respect has to be maintained. He said responsibility also rose "right to the top" at Cabinet level and the strategic objectives set.
For those needing support:
· The Defence all-hours Support Line is a confidential telephone and online service for ADF members and their families 1800 628 036
· Open Arms provides 24-hour free and confidential counselling and support for current and former ADF members and their families 1800 011 046, or through SafeZone on 1800 142 072.
Originally published as Shocking report casts shadow over war hero's honours