Veterans rally against stripping of Afghanistan War service awards.
By Robert Dougherty
Military veteran leaders have spoken out against plans to strip distinguished and conspicuous service awards from at least seven officers deployed during the Afghanistan War.
Representatives of the Australian Special Air Service Association (ASASA) and the Australian Commando Association, with the support of the Returned and Services League, have called for a stop to any administrative action against soldiers until criminal charges are dealt with and the facts established, in accordance with due process.
The groups have rallied against correspondence between the Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell and at least seven officers who served during warlike operations.
“…I am …referring the matter to the minister for defence (the minister) for consideration. It is then for the minister to independently determine whether he accepts the assessment in my letter after considering the relevant information including your response,” GEN Campbell allegedly told the officers.
“If he is of the view that your award should be cancelled, the minister will make a recommendation to the Governor-General. The Governor-General will then make a decision. This is in accordance with the Letters Patent. My consideration of your command accountability is now closed.”
That correspondence relates to the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry report (Brereton Report) released in 2020.
That document reportedly found credible information of war crimes committed by members of the Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. This allegedly included at least 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of Australian Special Forces.
The Office of the Special Investigator was established and is investigating those accusations under international obligations to prosecute war crimes; however, no individuals have been referred for prosecution.
The ASASA and CDO Associations and the RSL have pledged to discuss the issue widely with Ex-Service Organisations and the Australian community to determine the next steps.
They also called for judgement guided by compassion, respect for democratic and legal due process, and moral courage to support and respect the service of those placed in harm’s way by the Australian government and senior ADF commanders’ decisions.
Australian SAS Association national chairman Martin Hamilton-Smith said General Campbell has ignored the advice given to him by group representatives.
“Whilst we respect the institution of the ADF and the appointment of CDF as part of that institution, we now recognise that General Campbell’s actions necessitate a more prescient response,” he said.
“In our opinion, this CDF has mishandled the yet to be proven war crime allegations from the outset and has in the view of many veterans, created an inference of guilt against those involved before the defendants account of events had been heard, in accordance with due process.
“The removal of awards for distinguished and conspicuous service from soldiers after a war in this way appears unprecedented in the history of Anzac.
“This second attempt by CDF in effect impugns and humiliates dedicated young commanders who led brave soldiers in the fight against terror in Afghanistan with great distinction. It is in the opinion of veterans both unjustified and a stunning demonstration of poor leadership from our top-ranking military officer.
“SAS soldiers volunteered to get the job done but they were worn down and overused by their government in a lethal and under resourced workplace to minimise the government’s political risks and to fight the war on the cheap by avoiding the need to deploy and put at risk, larger conventional combat forces.
“Because they were so few, some soldiers were required to deploy on 9 to 10 rotations and spent up to three and a half years in combat. Our soldiers and their families paid physical, psychological, and moral price for their service. Each of them continues to carry a burden.”
Hamilton-Smith said General Campbell, as commander of the soldiers, as Commander Task Force 663 in 2011-12, had oversight of all operations and reviewed all action reports.
“On the back of the efforts of Special Forces facing the enemy in the Afghan desert, General Campbell was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the same award he wants to take away from the soldiers,” Hamilton-Smith said.
“As the senior Australian commander, General Campbell had a moral and command responsibility for Australian operations. He excludes himself from the standard he requires of others.
“The General should hand in his own medal, or he has no credibility.”
Australian SAS Association is concerned for each of the individual veterans who were ordered to fight the Afghanistan war and is sensitive to the work of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide currently undertaking hearings in Perth, Hamilton-Smith said.
Australian Commando Association vice-president Steve Pilmore said General Campbell’s actions follow the constructed dismissal of soldiers from their employment, a high rate of medical discharges and will further impact veterans’ mental health and that of their spouses and children.
“Soldiers and veterans feel the system which sent them to war has turned its back on them. It feels to them like organisational betrayal.
“Any punitive administrative action taken to remove awards or sanction veterans must be supported by evidence, it must be fair and considered, and individuals must be afforded due process.
“General Campbell has not made the case that awards should be removed from soldiers, and he has not held himself accountable as an SAS officer and as Commander of the Australians in Afghanistan in 2011–12.”
RSL national president Greg Melick said the RSL believes that there must be command accountability for any wrongdoings on their watch, the facts of allegations of wrongdoing in Afghanistan are untested and the truth not yet established by a court.
“The RSL believes that until those processes are complete, no further action against commanders, or anyone else, should be taken. In the meantime, all involved have a right to a presumption of innocence,” Melick said.
“We remain very concerned about the breadth and depth of the impact that this is having on the mental health of our veterans.
“We call for the legal processes to be worked through fairly but also as quickly as possible. In the meantime, the RSL offers its support and services for the wellbeing of any veterans affected.”