‘We didn’t murder him’: Soldier denies ABC story
The platoon commander of an Australian special forces unit accused in an ABC report of murdering an Afghan prisoner because there weren't enough seats on a helicopter has vowed it never happened.
Heston Russell served in the Australian Army from 2003 to 2019, the majority of this time as an officer in the Sydney-based special forces 2nd Commando Regiment.
Last week, the ABC published an interview with an unidentified US Marine who claimed he was witness to the murder of an unarmed Afghan prisoner during a mission in Afghanistan in 2012.
The Marine said the prisoner - one of seven who had been captured - was shot by an Australian soldier because there were only six available seats on the US extraction chopper.
Mr Russell vehemently denied the allegations, disputing how the US Marine could claim he heard a "pop" which the Marine took to be a gunshot, given he was "a couple of thousand feet above the ground".
"The helicopters were not on the ground ready for us to board," Mr Russell said.
"The Marine's accusation is based on him hearing a pop through his communication system. The helicopter was flying around, not hovering, as you would not hover for fear of being shot down, and hearing a pop at that height at that time with that level of combat noise and assuming that meant we had executed someone is outrageous and false."
Mr Russell, 34, has no recollection of the incident because he says it never happened. The first he knew of the allegation was last week when his November Platoon group of 40 plus soldiers was singled out in the ABC article
"He alleges that we murdered the seventh detainee in order to take six. We did not murder the seventh detainee," he said.
It was routine, he said, for detainees to be prioritised based on their potential intelligence value and those that could not be accommodated on helicopters would be left with Afghan Partner Forces.
"When the decision is made to leave a designated person of interest, what we would have done is take the ear muffs off them, the blackened out goggles off them, we would untie them and we would move them to an area of the village and instruct them with the local Partner Force to remain in that location until they could no longer hear the helicopters.
"We did that on more than five occasions to my knowledge. On no occasions did we ever execute any detainees that we could not fit on to a helicopter."
An ABC spokesman said the broadcaster stood by the story. But he refused to comment on whether the US Marine had seen any body.
"The ABC is aware former Commando Heston Russell has disputed the allegation in the report. However, we have no information he was there at the time," he said.
"As we have reported, the US Marine heard the shot over the radio communications in which he and his Marine crew on the Huey UH-1Y helicopter were included. They also heard the conversations between the US pilots and the Australians on the ground before and after the shot."
The ABC story broke on the morning of the eighth anniversary of the death of Special Operations Engineer Corporal Scott Smith, a member of November Platoon during the deployment referenced, who was killed by an IED on October 21, 2012. Mr Russell was Smith's Platoon Commander.
"I was the person who carried his body out with the assistance of others to be sent home to his family," he said. "The loss of Scott haunts me because he was one of those incredible people that you never thought that would happen to. It was a tremendous impact that he left on my life to help me be the best person I can be and support those that he supported now he is not here."
The government's Inspector General of the ADF inquiry is investigating reports and rumours of atrocities committed by Australian soldiers during operations in Afghanistan.
Mr Russell said he supports any investigation into alleged offences but called for greater concern for the mental health of the body of soldiers who have been caught up in the inquiry.
"They need to be investigated to the letter of the law," he said. "I make no excuses for anything that is found, I just ask that the Australian public appreciate that over 10 years of counter insurgency combat in a foreign country against an insurgency that you didn't know were the enemy until they fired at you, we weren't perfect but we tried to be perfect.
"Please just allow this investigation to take effect and for us to have our day in court if it comes to that."
Mr Russell said he had been inundated with phone calls from troubled veterans since the ABC story and even one of his former colleagues required medical support.
"I have received no support or contact from Defence since these claims have come out," he said.
"The lack of support is despairing. I am now propelled forward to motivate my guys."
Mr Russell said that despite assurances that they would be looked after, all of the Partner Force operatives he and his unit had worked with had been "slaughtered and killed by the Taliban" since Australia's withdrawal from the country area.
An Defence Force spokesman said the inquiry was being conducted at arm's length from the ADF and it was not appropriate for Defence to comment on matters that could be canvassed in the investigation.
Originally published as 'We didn't murder him': Soldier denies ABC story