ABC NEWS: Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell renews calls to strip medals from Afghanistan war veterans

25 May 2023

Defence Chief Angus Campbell has launched a fresh attempt to remove awards from some soldiers who held command positions in the Afghanistan war, following the damning findings of the Brereton inquiry.

Key points:

  • Veterans groups are furious at the latest attempt to revoke honours awarded from the Afghanistan war
  • General Angus Campbell indicated “work was continuing” on disciplinary action
  • Former SAS soldier Martin Hamilton-Smith suggested General Campbell could hand back a medal as a sign of leadership

The ABC can reveal General Campbell in recent days has written to several current and former Australian Defence Force members, informing them their honours for distinguished and conspicuous service on warlike operations could soon be cancelled. In formal correspondence to a small group of Afghanistan veterans, the Defence Chief declares his “consideration of your command accountability is now closed” and revealed he had referred the termination of their decorations to Defence Minister Richard Marles.

“It is then for the minister to independently determine whether he accepts the assessment in my letter after considering the relevant information including your response,” the general writes.

“If he is of the view that your award should be cancelled, the minister will make a recommendation to the governor-general. The governor-general will then make a decision.”

When releasing the findings of the Brereton inquiry in November 2020, General Campbell initially announced he had accepted a recommendation to remove the meritorious unit citation from the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) following revelations of alleged war crimes. 

Several months later, then-defence minister Peter Dutton announced he would overturn the recommendation, allowing around 3,000 SOTG personnel who served between 2007 and 2013 to keep their citations.

Last month General Campbell indicated “work was continuing” on possible internal disciplinary action related to failures of command accountability during the Afghanistan war when alleged crimes occurred.

Veterans groups are furious

Veterans groups have reacted furiously at the latest attempt to revoke honours awarded from the Afghanistan war, demanding the Albanese government again overrule the defence chief.

“Peter Dutton threw this out straight away in the last government when it was put before him,” says Martin Hamilton-Smith, the national president of the Special Air Service Association.

“I think Australians, veterans and their families are now going to wait and see whether the current government is going to stand with the veterans and their families or stand with the general who’s looking increasingly isolated.”

Mr Hamilton-Smith, a former SAS soldier and South Australian politician, has also suggested General Campbell should consider handing back his Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) as a sign of leadership.

“General Campbell was one of the very commanders in 2011/12 of all of the Australians in Afghanistan — on the back of the fighting effort of the SAS and Commandos he was awarded a DSC but he’s not offering that  onto the table.”

Steve Pilmore from the Commandos Association has also criticised General Campbell’s recent actions, saying no action should be taken until allegations have been dealt with in courts.

“This has dragged on for so long and I’m sure it’s causing havoc in the families of some people when they’re probably already dealing with some fairly major circumstances that come out of five, six, seven, eight [or] nine trips to Afghanistan.”

In a statement, the Defence Department told the ABC the defence chief had considered the command accountability of personnel who held command positions in Afghanistan and presented his findings and recommendations to the minister.

“As it is ongoing, and to protect privacy and support the welfare of our people, Defence will not comment on the circumstances of individuals,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed he was “considering the recommendations” from the defence chief and “seeking advice as appropriate”.

Source: Exclusive by defence correspondent Andrew Greene ABC News