Australia’s most decorated war hero has delivered a scathing attack on the Australian Defence Force’s top brass for their “disgusting” treatment of veterans and “staggering” lack of direction.
Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith said military commanders had run Australia’s longest-ever conflict in Afghanistan from the safety and comfort of Dubai without ever having a campaign strategy. And he thanked the Australian public for pushing for a royal commission into veteran suicides in the face of resistance from defence force chiefs afraid “because we’re going to uncover systemic failures and systemic flaws’’.
“That is the point of this royal commission … it’s what we need to do to protect the future of the military and more importantly, the people that are willing to sacrifice everything,” he said.
Mr Roberts-Smith is suing Nine newspapers for defamation over articles alleging he was being investigated by the Australian Federal Police for killing six Afghans outside of combat and was a war criminal.
The expensive legal battle is set to start in June and on Friday former governor-general Quentin Bryce was named as a reputation witness for Mr Roberts-Smith, who now runs Channel 7 in Queensland.
The 42-year-old former SAS corporal would not talk about his own experiences but said the treatment of his colleagues when they returned showed that a Royal Commission was desperately needed.
“It is a giant step forward for the prime minister to make this announcement and commit to a royal commission,” he said.
“It is something that is very much needed given the disproportionate rates of suicide that we see in Australia. We really need to address it.”
Mr Roberts-Smith said the person running the commission needed to be independent of the Australian Defence Force and “should not have ever been a service member or indeed anyone who potentially has ever worked in the same forms of government.”
He said the problem of veteran suicide lay squarely at the door of the top brass.
The “first flaw” in taking care of veterans was that “the psychological screening was a farce”.
“It was mostly an exercise designed to cover the senior leadership. It did not create any effect that would be conducive with protecting soldiers, sailors, airmen and mental health,” he said.
“We have been let down by our own military. We didn‘t have as many casualties as perhaps we could have because the men and women that serve were bloody good at their job.
“And yet now a lot of these issues are stemming from the fact that veterans feel that their own military family is taking that away from them.
Mr Roberts-Smith said the public had learnt from the treatment of Diggers returning from Vietnam but military chiefs had not.
“We’re very lucky to have a public that’s so supportive,” he said. “In Vietnam people came home and society didn’t understand the conflict.
“That was a black stain on our history … but we learnt a lesson from that.”
However, he said many soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan were not given an explanation of the reasoning behind the 20-year conflict.
“I mean, can you imagine being a 20-year-old man and sent to war, sent to Afghanistan?” Mr Roberts-Smith said. “You don’t really know why you’re there.
“And then your mate gets vaporised by an IED because you moved your left foot too much. You come home having not even been in a proper gunfight because you weren‘t allowed to get out and do your infantry job as you’re trying to do. And then you sit there wondering, what was that about?
“It’s staggering to me that so many people didn’t understand why we were there.
“But it’s not because they were ignorant or that they weren’t great. We actually didn’t have a campaign strategy. It’s pretty staggering.”
Mr Roberts-Smith said the SAS were given a better understanding of their mission because they were targeting senior enemy figures.
But a political aversion to seeing regular soldiers coming home in body bags meant the special forces were sent back on high rotation.
“I have observed that the senior leadership of the military does not accurately report to government the physical position of the force elements of their units,” he said.
“I think that’s because people obviously are more worried about their jobs than actually letting people know that you don’t have the right amount of people to do the job, that you’re working your special forces into the ground, that they are deploying too much, that your infantry soldiers are not being utilised in correct roles and tasks.”
Mr Roberts-Smith said he was “very proud” of every service man and woman who is “prepared to do something bigger than themselves.”
But an inquiry was vital because “we don’t demonstrate enough that we truly care about the individual” and a royal commission would look at caring for the “the health and wellbeing of (those) prepared to … put their lives on the line and put their bodies at risk”. “Every soldier is coming out of Afghanistan with some kind of physical or mental issue,’’ he said.