ANZAC DAY TODAY
For many Australians this is the holiest day of the year. In recognition, I am going to put up just one long story from Australia today, a story well worth reading, however. It is about an heroic Australian and his experiences in Afghanistan. Unlike the Arabs, Afghans are real fighters so hard-fought actions are the rule there
For a video report of the actual Anzac day ceremonies in Sydney, see here for a commentary in a very broad Australian accent (You can click "Close" to stop the introductory commercial)
Even heroes have their heroes. For Victoria Cross holder Ben Roberts-Smith, the benchmark for valour was set by his mate Sergeant Locke.
The Special Air Service Regiment corporal says Locke's courage probably saved his life and stopped a heavily outnumbered Australian patrol being overrun on a mountain top in Afghanistan late one afternoon in 2006.
"He was a very, very brave person, Matt, in every sense of the word," Roberts-Smith says. "He was one of these guys who would stand up in the middle of a firefight in front of a wave of fire and just hook in."
Roberts-Smith's extraordinary tales from Afghanistan, revealed to The Weekend Australian, have opened a rare window into the exploits of our special forces.
They also provide a vivid portrayal of violence and heroism in the war zone for this year's commemorations of Anzac Day, which normally evokes battles fought long ago and immortalised in sepia images and jerky film.
When Roberts-Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross of Australia for his extraordinary charge into a Taliban machine-gun position in June last year, it brought an unexpected burden: the weight of suddenly being a very public hero while his unit fights on with unsung gallantry.
"They're out there every day doing their job and not seeking any recognition for it," Roberts-Smith says. "I'm just one of these guys and I'm so not special."
These guys included Locke, an instructor when Roberts-Smith joined the unit. They hit it off and ended up in the same patrol. "He was a nice guy and a natural soldier," Roberts-Smith says. "I looked up to him a lot as an operator and thought, that's the gold standard, you want to behave like this guy, he knows his job inside out.
"The way I saw him fight in Afghanistan on a number of occasions was inspirational. "He wouldn't look for a fire position. He'd just take it and you'd be thinking, just get down, mate, you're going to get hit. He never cared, always cool and calm."
Locke had served in Afghanistan before. "For me, on my first trip to Afghanistan, having a guy like that in my patrol, that's the kind of thing you want to emulate."
In 2006, the Chora Valley, in Oruzgan province, was a Taliban stronghold considered impenetrable to coalition forces. There were none of the forward operating bases, the small stone forts that now provide a defensive network through the valley, and patrols that tried to move through the pass came under heavy fire.
As Australian and Dutch forces based in Tarin Kowt set about driving the insurgents out, a small SAS patrol infiltrated on foot to the top of a mountain overlooking the valley to work out where the insurgents were set up.
Five SAS soldiers and an American "joint terminal air controller" walked and climbed for 10 hours at night with their night-vision glasses providing eerie light on the landscape. As scout, Roberts-Smith picked out the route. The men had to stay constantly alert, aware they could walk into an enemy force.
The team chose a position just below the top of a mountain and with daylight saw, far below, insurgents openly carrying weapons. The Australians pinpointed Taliban commanders by the amount of security they had with them and the way they conducted themselves.
The plan was for a strong force of SAS and Dutch troops to drive into the valley in vehicles, but as that force moved into the lush green belt along the valley floor, it came under heavy machinegun and rocket fire and the JTAC called in air support.
The insurgents were blasted by A-10 Warthogs, aircraft designed to destroy ground targets. "Being savvy, as they are, they realised that there must have been someone controlling the attacks because even when the vehicles left, we kept calling in fire missions anti them," Roberts-Smith says.
Once the big force in the valley pulled out, the men on the mountaintop were on their own and on the third day an armed insurgent walked to within 30m of their position. Not knowing whether the man had spotted them but unable to take the risk, Locke and Roberts-Smith went after him. They killed the insurgent but one of their bullets set off a smoke flare on his webbing. Across the valley came bursts of heavy machinegun fire used by the insurgents to signal to each other across the valleys - "You OK? I'm OK."
Then three insurgents walked up the other side of the mountain right to the patrol's position and the Australians could hear more voices further back. "Matt and I engaged and dropped the first bloke," Roberts-Smith says. "That started the firefight."
Some of the insurgents got above the Australians to fire down on them. "Rounds were bouncing off the rocks around us," he says. "At that point, I saw Matt Locke sling his weapon."
The insurgents were atop a sheer, vertical rock face 8m or 9m high. "Matt climbed it completely exposed with no way to fire back if he needed to," Roberts-Smith says. "He got to the top and over the lip and engaged them and held that flank by himself." Locke was awarded the Medal of Gallantry for that action. "I remember yelling out to him, 'Are you good?' and he called back, 'Yeah'," Roberts-Smith says.
By then, another group of insurgents had arrived. The patrol commander, a member of the British Special Boat Service seconded to the Australian SAS, decided to stand and fight rather than breaking contact and facing a long-running battle. "That was the right call," says Roberts-Smith, who was also awarded a Medal of Gallantry for this battle. "If we'd tried to break contact and moved downhill, we probably would have got slaughtered in the valley."
As more insurgents moved in, the American called for air support and was told all aircraft were involved in other operations.
The Taliban clearly aimed to surround or overrun the patrol. Armed with a sniper rifle with telescopic sight, Roberts-Smith moved out about 50m from the position to protect a flank. Under fire from two groups coming from different directions, he crouched behind a rock and remembers seeing splinters flying as bullets hammered it.
"The guys on my right were shooting at me and we were having a bit of a three-way gunfight," he says. "Then Matt got on to them and gave them stick from above. That took the emphasis off me. It broke up their formation.
"I felt that Matt had probably saved my life during that contact because he put himself up in that position and he was able to suppress the enemy that was engaging me from the flank that I couldn't see. He took a lot of the heat off me. "If he hadn't done that, they would have taken all day to work out a pretty effective shot."
Roberts-Smith fired single shots at the insurgents moving up the hill to break up their attack but he was concerned he would run out of ammunition. "One well-aimed shot is just as effective as a burst of machinegun fire - especially if it hits them," he says. "If you're running forward and you see a round hit the ground right in front of you, you look for cover and that stops your advance."
The fighting was intense. At one point, a bullet smashed the night sight on Roberts-Smith's rifle and a soldier who'd joined him out on the flank realised later that a thick code book in his breast pocket had saved him from large bullet fragment.
Finally, the American signalled to headquarters that the unit could be overrun and the Warthogs swept back over. While the other SAS men fought off the approaching Taliban, the American was lying on his back with a handset to each ear and bullets bouncing around him as he co-ordinated the attacks by pilots who could not see the patrol. The JTAC told the pilots to make runs using their 30mm chain guns not much more than 50m away from either side of the Australian position. That was when the fight turned and the enemy began to withdraw. It was just on sunset and the light was fading.
"It was one of those days where we were probably extremely lucky," Roberts-Smith says.
As the gunfire ended, the American air commander could not raise the the patrol by radio. "When they did make contact," Roberts-Smith says, "you know Americans, 'Goddam, it's good to hear your voice. I thought I'd killed you. We couldn't see you on the hill.' "
The coming darkness was another reason the insurgents broke off the attack. They did not have the night-vision equipment that gave special forces such an advantage. Since then, the insurgents have recognised the value of night-vision gear and pick up sets whenever they can - from the internet or from supply convoys attacked in Pakistan or coalition positions they have overrun.
The patrol commander decided the team would stay in place for another seven hours to cover the return of the main force. "Then we walked off the hill in darkness. It was a pretty long four days."
Roberts-Smith says all of the men in his unit faced that sort of experience every day. Whenever he was in action, there were mates ahead of him or protecting his back.
Whenever the SAS men climbed into a helicopter, they knew they were in for a fight. "Please say to everyone, I wear my medal for every one of these blokes who walk down the street and never have anyone shake their hand because no one will ever know who they are, like I used to be," he says.
"The things I've seen other blokes do . . . I've seen people storm rooms with guys inside there firing. That's gallant. "I've seen blokes in hand-to-hand situations where they're wrestling with people to take weapons off them. "And guys get up and run across open ground to drag wounded mates out of car seats because half their face has been blown off."
Like the SAS unit caught in a village and blasted by scores of rocket-propelled grenades. "Blokes having to jump over walls, fighting through the streets, destroying the codes in their radios because they thought they were going to be captured," he says. "They spent six hours fighting back until they they could recapture the vehicles they lost in the initial contact. "That kind of thing has happened every year for the whole time we've been there.
"I just want people to understand that all the guys do it. "We want to do it because someone needs to do it. That's what we do and we're all wired that way. There's a strong possibility that you'll be incapacitated or not make it home. The reality is this year everyone in this unit will go there at some stage and they may not come back. That's reality."
For 33-year-old Locke, reality struck on October 25, 2007, when he was leading a patrol in the Chora Valley. The forward scout crossed a creek and Locke moved forward to cover him. The sergeant was lying on his stomach in a shooting position when a Taliban machinegun opened fire.
A bullet struck Locke from the front and hit his heart. Matty Locke, hero, mentor and mate, was dead within seconds. "That is battle," Roberts-Smith says.