HONOUR COURAGE SERVICE
We pay tribute to the 100 Australian ian servicemen to have been awarded the Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is Australia’s highest honour, awarded to just 100 men in a touch over 100 years.
Only four survive, and here they all are, gathered on a rooftop in Brisbane’s Petrie Valley.
It is the eve of the centenary of Armistice Day, 11/11, the day the guns fell silent on the war that was meant to end all wars, a solemn event The Weekend Australian today commemorates with a magazine honouring all 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross.
Of the group of four who survive, Keith Payne VC AM is, at 85, the oldest. He earned his honour in Vietnam. The others — Mark Donaldson VC, Ben RobertsSmith VC MG, and Daniel Keighran VC — are veterans of the desert war in Afghanistan.
It was no simple task to assemble these men for this photograph. They know each other, of course. Indeed, they often see each other, at this dawn service, or that melancholy funeral, and so they greet each other with affection, but in the main, they are private people. Introverts, a little cautious in the company of people who have never served, and therefore cannot know.
To be awarded the VC is an honour, but it’s a sombre one.
The medal goes mainly to men who have died, or come close to death trying to save the lives of their comrades in the screaming heat of battle.
There is no sense of achievement, certainly no celebration. These four men have turned up today for the same reason they joined the army in the first place. Duty. Old-fashioned concept, that one.
They have something in common, beyond the Victoria Cross: a desire to demonstrate unyielding support for their fellow veterans, and for men and women still in uniform.
First to arrive is Donaldson, formerly Trooper Donaldson of the Special Air Service Regiment, who in 2008 after a firefight realised that an Afghan interpreter was wounded on the battlefield.
Moving on foot, with disregard for his own safety, he went back, and carried him to safety.
Donaldson in those days had a red beard, and dusty skin. That look doesn’t fly in peace time, and he arrives clean-shaven, biceps bulging under a business shirt (none of them looks particularly comfortable in their suits.).
When he speaks, his voice is so quiet, you can barely hear him, and never does he use two words when one will do. He’s married now, has a couple of kids, he’s working as a defence adviser for Boeing. Things are going well. Next comes Dan Keighran, formerly Corporal Daniel Keighran of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, who placed himself under enemy fire while leading his men out of harm’s way during a battle in Oruzgan province in August 2010.
Today? He’s kid-wrangling. Dan’s white-haired son, Jack, is sprinting down the hotel corridors, placing starfish hand prints on doors, searching handbags for phones and jangly keys, which are now at risk of being dropped over the rooftop’s edge.
“Tougher than war?” somebody says, as Dan, smiling, scoops his spirited son off the floor.
In one hand, he has his medals; in the other, a rubber water bottle.
Next comes Ben RobertsSmith, formerly of the Special Air Service Regiment, son of a retired judge in Western Australia, brother of an opera singer, father of IVF twins Eve and Elizabeth; a man awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during an assault in Kandahar Province in June 2010 during which he exposed his own position to draw fire away from the men in his patrol, before storming an enemy position to kill two machinegunners. He arrives with his wife, Emma. They are holding hands, and later, they’ll have a quiet breakfast together, over linen napkins and silverware in the hotel restaurant, he so enormous and upright, she so tiny and pretty.
Peacetime has perhaps been toughest on him. He’s been let down by people whose support he considered rock solid. Some friends, even some institutions, have drifted away. He’s bolted the marriage back together; and he’s working for Kerry Stokes at Seven West Media.
The family lives on acreage. They have no social media.
Emma lets Ben’s hand go, so he can fetch his medals. They come mounted, with an extra-long pin, and there’s an art to threading it onto a suit. Ben’s struggling, and a voice chides him: “Come on BRS, you’ve done this before, surely?”
Ben looks up and smiles for here comes Keith Payne, formerly of the Australian Army Training Team, who in 1969 was commanding the 212th company of the 1st mobile strike force battalion, when they were attacked by the North Vietnamese army.
Surrounded on three sides, he located 40 fallen comrades, and brought some in himself, braving guns across enemy terrain.
Keith has arrived with Florence — Flo — which surprises nobody. They have been married more than 50 years, have five sons, go everywhere together. He works tirelessly for veterans, speaking whenever he can to schoolchildren about the horror of war.
This week alone, he’s hitched five planes.
“What do you expect of a warrant officer?” Flo says, as proud today as she ever was.
The group assembles, and for a moment, the rooftop falls silent, but for the click of the camera.
It’s a particular honour, the Victoria Cross, awarded for valour in the presence of the enemy.
What that means is: these men faced fire, and by their actions, en- sured that others came home. They too came home. From time to time, each has been asked to speak, usually to a room of 1000 or more people, and you can always hear a pin drop.
The tale they have to tell is not that of a mountain climbed, an injury overcome, a victory over the All Blacks. This is war. Standing up, making oneself the target so that others might live … we should all pray that we are never asked to find the courage. These men did, and tomorrow they will stand as they always do at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, and they will remember.
And you? Will you do your best to remember? Or will you do as we all promised, and get on your feet, and never forget?
Australia’s surviving Victoria Cross recipients, Ben Roberts-Smith, left, Keith Payne, Mark Donaldson and Dan Keighran, in Brisbane to mark the centenary of Armistice Day