Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) is made up of around 600 soldiers who wear the “sandy beret”. They are supported by hundreds more who provide battleground, signals, weapons and other support. Its troopers are based in Perth.
The Army’s 2nd Commando Regiment is of similar size and weight. It’s seven Companies are based in Holsworthy outside Sydney. The two Regiments are part of Special Operations Command and sit at the pointy end the Australian Army’s special operations and counter-terrorism capability.
The sheer size of the Regiments tells us that the events which led to the Brereton inquiry should not be a reflection on all our elite soldiers. The allegations of unlawful conduct have been levelled at a relatively small few. Further, we need to be mindful of what governments exposed our diggers to, and how much we expected of them.
These two points should neither understate the seriousness of the alleged events, nor excuse those involved. Those involved will pay a high price if the allegations are proven. But they do invite us to reflect and ask the question: how did it come to this?
Those who pass the ultra-challenging “selection” courses to become elite fighters over-come extraordinary physical and mental tests. In effect, the Army melts them down and re-builds them, so they are capable of the necessary teamwork, mutual trust, and the mental toughness needed to deploy lethal force when necessary. In effect, they make “warriors” of them.
But as impressive and professional as this process is, and no matter how tough and skilled our front-line soldiers are, there is a limit to their mental resilience. In Afghanistan we tested that limit. As the conflict dragged-on we took them away from their families again and again, and for longer periods of time as the resources became more and more stretched.
They were sent to the most dangerous place on earth to fight an enemy that respects none of the rules we do. Not the laws of war, not domestic law, not the rules of engagement.
They wore no uniform, making it hard to be sure who the enemy was. Having risked their lives to capture them, our boys in uniform too often later spotted them roaming the streets of Uruzgan Province due to NATO’s “catch and release” policy.
After putting their lives on the line for our country for years, our battle-fatigued soldiers started to question whether mission success was likely, despite achieving everything asked of them.
As civilians we must now allow the legal processes to play out. But we must maintain our respect and admiration for those who wear the uniform of the Australian Defence Force and do so to protect us all. We honour them and thank them. Lest we Forget.