The army must change if it values men like this
The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief yesterday when SAS hero and Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith announced that he was staying in the army for the time being.
Corporal Roberts-Smith is the poster boy from central casting for the Australian Defence Force and he had previously told senior officers that he planned to leave the service following 18 years in the army and nine tours of duty with the SAS.
“Like any member of the ADF, there will come a time for me to move on. However, if and when that time comes, I will remain connected to the SASR, the Army and the ADF,’’ he said.
The man mountain with the laconic smile, the devoted wife Emma and cute twin daughters Eve and Elizabeth is a genuine hero and a recruiting dream for the army.
The fact that the man known fondly as “Big Ben” or “RS” to his mates was planning to leave the army did not surprise anyone who understands the rigours of military life and the incredible demands of high-end special-forces service.
Corporal Roberts-Smith has had more bullets flying past his head and has killed more enemy fighters in a few short years than most soldiers do in a lifetime.
Just reading the public citation that accompanied his Victoria Cross for Australia send a shiver down the spine of most civilians. The classified version that details the damage he inflicted on the other side is apparently frightening.
“On the 11th June 2010, a troop of the Special Operations Task Group conducted a helicopter assault into Tizak, Kandahar Province, in order to capture or kill a senior Taliban commander,” the citation reads.
“As he approached the structure, Corporal Roberts-Smith identified an insurgent grenadier in the throes of engaging his patrol. Corporal Roberts-Smith instinctively engaged the insurgent at point-blank range resulting in the death of the insurgent. With the members of his patrol still pinned down by the three enemy machine gun positions, he exposed his own position in order to draw fire away from his patrol, which enabled them to bring fire to bear against the enemy. His actions enabled his Patrol Commander to throw a grenade and silence one of the machine guns. Seizing the advantage, and demonstrating extreme devotion to duty and the most conspicuous gallantry, Corporal Roberts-Smith, with a total disregard for his own safety, stormed the enemy position killing the two remaining machine gunners.”
Incredible stuff and the sight of this two-metre plus, unshaven and heavily armed giant racing towards them like a Spartan warrior must have put the fear of god into the enemy fighters.
To pass selection for the Special Air Service Regiment is a feat in itself but to serve on nine active tours of duty is a remarkable though not uncommon achievement among the tight knit SAS community based at Campbell Barracks, Swanbourne near Perth.
Finding recruits that are up to the demands of SAS service is not easy. The families of SAS soldiers also sacrifice an enormous amount in support of their menfolk and Emma Roberts-Smith has had to stay at home on tenterhooks, waiting for that dreaded phone call, as her man has served with distinction in some of the most dangerous places on earth.
His planned departure signalled a tipping point for the military brass who are concerned about the loss of special-forces skills as the Afghanistan campaign draws to a close.
Commanders see the end of the war as a “decision point” for weary soldiers and some are well aware of the need to do something about providing a satisfying career path for their highest achieving soldiers.
The challenge in these days of shrinking budgets is to ensure that meaningful jobs can be found for the tier one operators. Many of those who are leaving, and there are quite a few including senior officers and soldiers, believe that the army is reverting to a 1990s force and that those in charge don’t know how to reverse the trend.
There are two fights going on, one on the battlefield and one in Canberra and as one former senior SAS operator put it, “We are not winning either.”
The urgent challenge for the top brass is to harness the knowledge and experience of operational commanders and operators and to promote younger guys into the senior command tent before they get restless. This could mean promoting them over the top of more senior officers who have served their time.
The fact that Big Ben has decided to stay on for now is good news for the SAS, the army and the nation. The challenge for the brass will be keeping him.
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