We pay trib­ute to the 100 Aus­tralian ian ser­vice­men to have been awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - CARO­LINE OVERINGTON

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

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