Ex-soldier says Roberts-Smith deserved Victoria Cross, but process was ‘politicised’
By Michaela Whitbourn
A former elite soldier giving evidence against Ben Roberts-Smith in the war veteran’s defamation case has told the Federal Court that fighting alongside his former comrade in a highly publicised battle was the highlight of his career.
Person 4, who was medically discharged from the SAS last year, gave emotional evidence on Wednesday that the two men had faced “overwhelming odds together” during a battle in Tizak, Afghanistan, in 2010. The court heard the men came under fire from Taliban machine gunners at close range.
Mr Roberts-Smith and another soldier were “ashen in the face” after a “large, sustained machine gun burst” tore up the ground between them, Person 4 said. He believed he would have looked “exactly the same”, because he had “an absolute feeling of dread and fear due to the amount of fire that we were receiving”.
In January 2011, Mr Roberts-Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross, Australia’s highest military honour, for his role in the battle at Tizak, while Person 4 received the Medal of Gallantry some years later in 2013.
His voice choked at times with emotion as he told the court the battle was “the highlight of my professional career, purely because … I didn’t let them down, and that we both supported each other”.
“Your Honour, I’m not sure if you understand the gravity of machine gun fire, but if you receive fire from a machine gun … one machine gunner is a platoon attack, so they will throw 30 people at it, and if there’s more than one it’s a company attack.
“So, if there’s two or more, they’ll throw 100 people at it. There was only two of us on that day, plus Person 32, that were able to overcome those odds, which is why that action is so poignant for me.”
Bruce McClintock, SC, one of a team of barristers acting for Mr Roberts-Smith, said during his opening address to the court last year that the decorated former soldier’s reputation had been destroyed by a campaign led by “bitter people” in the SAS who were “aided by credulous journalists”.
Person 4 said he was “upset that something as outstanding as what both Ben and myself did was politicised and they could have, you know, accepted the fact that both of us did as much as each other on that day”.
But he said he believed Mr Roberts-Smith deserved the Victoria Cross and “myself, I never thought that I deserved that award”.
“You read the acts of gallantry that people have received that award for and I just didn’t think I did because I’m just, it’s a humility side of it that is bred into you. You just don’t laud yourself.”
He said it was his “impression” that the government and heads of the Defence Force wanted a “good news story” in 2011 after 2010 was “the most violent year in … Afghanistan and we lost a lot of people”.
“I still believe he deserved it, but it is common knowledge that a Victoria Cross is a political statement used by the government for a good news story,” Person 4 said.
He said he “loved [Mr Roberts-Smith] … as a brother” and “there’s no resentment there”.
“Now you hate him, don’t you?” Arthur Moses, SC, acting for Mr Roberts-Smith, said.
“Of course, I don’t hate him. Believe me, I’m not jealous of him,” Person 4 replied.
Person 4, whose name cannot be revealed for national security reasons, has previously told the court that he saw Mr Roberts-Smith kick a handcuffed and unarmed Afghan man in the chest during a subsequent mission in Darwan in 2012, causing the man to be “catapulted” over a cliff.
The Federal Court has heard the man was later shot dead. Person 4 has said he heard shots being fired and observed another soldier, Person 11, standing nearby after the shots rang out with his rifle “still” raised in a shooting position. Mr Roberts-Smith was also nearby, Person 4 has said.
Person 4 denied he had become “obsessed” with Mr Roberts-Smith and had “told stories” to two other soldiers about what he thought happened in Darwan to diminish his former comrade’s reputation.
He also denied that he was “delusional” and had come to believe his “story” was true.
“That is exactly what happened. I know it happened,” he said.
Person 4 told the court on Tuesday that he had a conversation in late 2016 with another soldier, Person 7, who “wanted to know about the mission in Darwan”.
He said he “found that odd, because it was common knowledge”, but he recounted the alleged incident.
Under cross-examination on Wednesday, Person 4 said he believed the majority of soldiers within the SAS troop were aware of the incident.
He said Mr Roberts-Smith had told a group of soldiers, including one dubbed Person 32, that he “he kicked the individual off the cliff”.
“You’re making this up, aren’t you?” Mr Moses asked.
“No, I’m not,” Person 4 said.
He said there was also a drawing on a whiteboard displayed prominently at the SAS base of a “winged p—-s kicking an individual off a … cliff”, which he believed referenced that killing. He told the court earlier this week that another soldier, Person 35, had a reputation for drawing winged p—–s.
Mr Roberts-Smith has previously told the court that the Afghan man was first seen in a field and was showing hostile intent. The decorated former soldier said last year that Person 11 spotted the Afghan man and started firing, before he fired from behind his comrade. The Afghan man had “fallen”, he said, and he believed Person 11 fired further rounds.
Mr Roberts-Smith launched defamation proceedings in 2018 against The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times over a series of articles that he says accuse him of being a war criminal, among other claims.
He denies all wrongdoing. The media outlets are seeking to rely on a defence of truth and allege Mr Roberts-Smith committed or was involved in six murders of Afghans under the control of Australian troops, when they cannot be killed under the rules of engagement.
The trial continues.