We Australians can be proud to have among us such men
Corporal Benjamin Roberts-Smith VC with his wife Emma and twin five-month old daughters Eve and Elizabeth
As corporal Ben Roberts-Smith has tattooed across his chest the simple message: "I will not fail my brothers."
Early on June 11 last year, in the rugged north of Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, the special forces soldier lived up to his own promise.
In an early morning raid on a Taliban stronghold, Corporal Roberts-Smith and two other special forces soldiers were lying in a horribly exposed position just 20m in front of an insurgent machine-gun post.
From the sparse cover of a small pile of rubble, Corporal Roberts-Smith saw gunfire tearing up the ground around his friends and realised they'd soon be killed. He leapt to his feet and charged the machine-gun, killing the gunners at point-black range.
Yesterday, he was awarded the highest award for valour, the Victoria Cross of Australia. The medal was presented in front of Corporal Roberts-Smith's family and previous VC winners Mark Donaldson and Keith Payne.
Corporal Roberts-Smith's father, West Australian Corruption and Crime Commission chief Len Roberts-Smith, told The Australian last night he was not surprised by his son's courage. He said his son lived by the message he wore on his chest.
"To have a son that you know did that is just extraordinary. We are incredibly proud of him," said Mr Roberts-Smith, himself a former army major-general. "As a parent, of course I worry enormously. We know the circumstances he goes into and we know our son, so we know he's going to be at the forefront. But we're very proud of him."
Corporal Roberts-Smith comes from a high-achieving family. His brother Sam, 24, is an opera singer critically acclaimed for his role in Carmen, which is playing in Sydney at the moment
Yesterday, Corporal Roberts-Smith, the second member of Australia Special Air Service regiment to win the VC in Afghanistan, spoke of the fear felt by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and said they all showed great courage under fire. "I saw a lot of brave men do a lot of brave things that day," the 32-year-old SAS soldier said yesterday after being honoured for his extreme gallantry.
Governor-General Quentin Bryce said she felt honoured just pinning the medal on his chest. "In these times of hardship for so many Australians, you bring our hearts to soar," she said. "Corporal, you are not invincible, you are human, extraordinarily and exceptionally so."
Julia Gillard said Corporal Roberts-Smith was reluctant to be at the centre of "so much fuss" but he was a true hero. She said the Victoria Cross was "an honour so high that even the chief of the Defence Force salutes those that hold it".
Defence Force chief Angus Houston, himself a decorated pilot, followed convention and, despite his vastly superior rank, saluted the corporal.
Air Chief Marshal Houston said Corporal Roberts-Smith had brought great credit to himself, the Australian Army, the Special Air Service Regiment and the Australian Defence Force. "Today, we in the military feel great admiration and respect for the extreme valour shown by Corporal Roberts-Smith and we are honoured to call him one of our own," Air Chief Marshal Houston said.
The SAS soldiers were pinned down in a battle with the Taliban in Afghanistan's Shah Wali Kot region when Corporal Roberts-Smith made his life-saving dash through a storm of gunfire. "Every single bloke in that troop was at some stage fighting for their lives, every person there showed gallantry," Corporal Roberts-Smith said. "The decisions that I saw made were heroic, just watching some of my mates who were wounded by frag just keep firing, just ignoring the fact that they were drawing fire to themselves."
Corporal Roberts-Smith said he was aware of bullets flying around him as he tackled the machine-gun posts, and anyone who said they didn't feel fear was "either crazy or not telling the truth". But he said his actions were instinctive. "I saw my mates getting ripped up so I just decided to move forward. I wasn't going to just sit there and do nothing. I thought I'd have a crack, I was not going to let my mates down," he said.
The father of twin five-month-old girls said Australia was achieving results in Afghanistan. "I believe that we are making a difference in stemming the flow of terrorism into Australia, and I want my children to be able to live as everyone does now without the fear of getting on to a bus and having it blow up," he said.