Two Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan 30 May 2011

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning. The Australian Defence Force had a very bad day in Afghanistan yesterday and it is with immense sorrow that I’m here this morning to announce the death of two Australian soldiers in Afghanistan in two separate incidents overnight.

In the first incident, which occurred early yesterday evening, a member of the Mentoring Task Force, while undertaking guard duty at patrol base MASHAL in the Chorah Valley was shot by an Afghan National Army soldier who was also manning the security guard tower.

Despite receiving substantial medical treatment at the base and being airlifted very quickly to a nearby ISAF medical facility at Tarin Kot in well under an hour, the Australian soldier died from his wounds.

The Afghan National Army soldier who fired his weapon fled the scene of the incident. Another Afghan National Army soldier who had discovered what had happened, but was not in the area during the incident fired upon the offending ANA soldier as he was fleeing. Additionally a security operation was launched in an effort to impede the suspected gunman’s escape. However, the perpetrator was not apprehended, but he was identified. Like the death of all our soldiers in Afghanistan, the death of this soldier is both sad and tragic. Of course, the particular circumstances of this incident are also disturbing given that the perpetrator in question was thought to be our partner and was the recipient of our mentoring and training.

Though we have the broad detail of what occurred, I’m sure you will understand that I can’t speak today about the motivation of this Afghan National Army soldier, nor any associations he may have or the amount of planning that did or didn’t go into the attack.

The entire event is under investigation and we’re obviously going to take a very close look at how this occurred, why this occurred, and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it. Today, to the family of the Australian soldier who have been notified about this soldier’s death overnight, on behalf of all the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, I offer my condolences for their loss. While I can’t ease their grief at this very sad time, I want them to know the Australian Defence Force will be there to provide comfort and support as their loved one is laid to rest.

I’m not in a position to share his name with you this morning but I can share a little bit about his experience and what kind of soldier he was.

This young man was 25 years old and at the rank of Lance Corporal. He had served in the Army for seven years. He had previous operational experience in East Timor and started his rotation in Afghanistan in November last year. I’m told he was a loyal, reliable, and very trusted member of his unit.

He was promoted last year to his current rank and displayed great leadership potential. Though he was quiet and reserved, he enjoyed a joke with his mates and was always the first among them to volunteer when work was required to be done.

He will be very sadly missed by his many Army mates. This will also be a tough time for the Mentoring Task Force.  Not only have they lost a mate, but they have also had to deal with this perpetrator. They will be experiencing a myriad of emotions, grief and anger, foremost among them.

But I know that they will also want to reaffirm their commitment to the Afghan partners with whom they do enjoy a productive, trusting and close relationship. They will not want this one terrible incident to damage the outstanding progress made by many rotations of mentors and their Afghan partners.

We remain committed to our mentoring role and I can’t stress highly enough the importance of the Mentoring Task Force to achieving our mission in Afghanistan.

The relationship between the Afghan National Army soldiers of the 4th Brigade is one of the longest running in Afghanistan and there is a genuine bond between the forces. The 4th Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Mohammed Zafir Khan has expressed his shock and outrage at the attack and he and his soldiers are actively seeking to apprehend the suspect.

That said, I understand this incident is obviously going to quite rightly raise some very serious questions about the security measures we have in place and I can assure you we’ll be looking very closely at the outcomes of the investigations and any necessary changes that may be required to enhance the protection of our people.

In the second and separate incident, which occurred a few hours after the shooting, just after 9pm last night, Australian Eastern Standard Time, an Australian Officer was killed when an Australian Chinook helicopter, which was undertaking a re-supply mission, crashed 90 kilometres east of Tarin Kot, in Zabul Province.

An American Chinook was in close proximity and the crew on board witnessed the crash. They landed and provided immediate medivac assistance for the most seriously wounded soldier to the Role II facility in Qalat, 70 kilometres to the south of the crash site. Unfortunately, despite this immediate medical assistance, the Officer could not be saved.

The other five Australians on board the crashed helicopter were subsequently evacuated to the Role III medical facility at Kandahar and I’m pleased to say are in a satisfactory condition.

The Chinook helicopter could not be recovered and was destroyed in place.

The family of this soldier were notified of his death this morning. I’m not able to release his name at this stage, however, I can share that he was 27 years old and a Lieutenant in the Army. He was a qualified pilot who had provided sterling service in Afghanistan since he deployed a short time ago.

He had previously served in East Timor and had been part of Operation FLOOD ASSIST in Queensland, coming to the assistance of his fellow Australians who found themselves in need in January.

Though this incident has not long happened, already his comrades are saying what a keen, motivated and driven young officer he was, committed to serving our nation and excelling as a pilot.

To this Officer’s large and close-knit family, I offer my deepest sympathy and assure them we will provide we will provide whatever assistance we can. I hope they are able to draw some comfort from the knowledge they are in the thoughts and prayers of so many Australians today that are grateful for their loved one’s service to our nation and the sacrifice he has made on our behalf.

Minister.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Angus.

Well, this tragic news will be a devastating blow to two Australian families, but also a devastating blow to our nation and this sad news will reverberate throughout Australia in the course of today. It will reverberate in that devastating and tragic way, because it follows so soon and so quickly after the death of Sergeant Wood and his ramp ceremony yesterday.

It will reverberate because this is the first time in almost a year where we have had to regrettably advise Australia that we’ve had more than one casualty on the same day.

The Chief of the Defence Force has outlined in general terms the two separate instances. We are unable at this stage to identify the two men concerned as a result of requests by families for further time to inform loved ones and I know that people will respect that privacy.

Can I, at the outset, express on behalf of the Government, on behalf of the Parliament our condolences to those two families.

Because of the difficult circumstances of the first instance, where the death of an Australian soldier has been caused by the actions of an ANA member, that will also bring with it special issues and special circumstances which will need to be carefully examined as the Chief of the Defence Force has outlined.

But, given these two fatalities follow so closely on from Sergeant Wood’s death, given the difficult circumstances of the first instance, this will be a significant and devastating blow to Australia, to Australians and, of course, to our Defence Force personnel.

This brings to 26 the number of fatalities in Afghanistan since our operation in Afghanistan commenced almost a decade ago. With the injuries, we also see our casualty list go to over 170.

On a day like today, it’s important to reflect upon why we are in Afghanistan and the basis on which we are there.

I’ve seen in recent days a suggestion that the main or the only reason we are there is to support our alliance partner, the United States. We are in Afghanistan for more than that reason. We continue to very strongly believe that it is in Australia’s national interest to do our bit to help stare down international terrorism and yes, we work very closely with our alliance partner, the United States in that effort. But our mission in Afghanistan continues to be, as it has since day one, authorised by United Nations mandate, which has been renewed successively over a decade.

So, in the face of these devastating announcements today, tragic news that will reverberate throughout the Australian community, we remain very strongly of the view that our resolve in Afghanistan must continue. We continue to do our work to transition security responsibility in Uruzgan Province and Afghanistan generally to the Afghan national security forces.

Angus and I are happy to respond to your questions.

JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, could you qualify the nature of the international terrorist threat that we’re staring down in Afghanistan, please?

STEPHEN SMITH: In Afghanistan we know that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area has for a long period of time been a breeding ground for international terrorism and very many of the attacks by international terrorists, not just on Australian citizens, whether that’s in south-east Asia or the United States or Europe, can be traced back to this area.

And whilst some may argue that the death of bin Laden significantly – significantly denudes al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan, al-Qaeda is not the only terrorist group in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and all of our analysis, all of our view is that we continue to need to play a role to protect our national security interests, to protect our regional security interests, to protect the international community’s security interests by playing our part as one of 48 nations involved in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan authorised, as we are, by a United Nations mandate.

JOURNALIST: The shooting – I know you said it’s early days but do you have any understanding at the moment whether or not it was an actual attack or whether it was just the result of some sort of argument in the guardhouse or something like that, a personal dispute between these two men?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: We simply don’t know. That’s why it’s so important to do the investigation. What happened, there were three people who were manning the guardhouse: one Australian, two Afghans, and one of the Afghans departed to attend to a personal matter and it was during his departure that the incident occurred. Shots rang out and the Afghan who was attending to his personal matter came back and found our member obviously badly wounded and obviously applied first aid and raised the alarm and also fired at the absconding Afghan National Army member.

So that’s essentially what happened. We need to investigate it closely and that’s all I’m able to say at this time.

JOURNALIST: Was our soldier shot more than once? You mentioned wounds. Another question, the helicopter, is there any suggestion that enemy action might have brought it down? And, sorry, one other. The – often the inquiries take some time, are there any immediate steps being taken to protect soldiers in those forward operating bases from similar incidents?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, to the first question, he sustained three wounds so that’s – that’s the only – the only thing we’ve got at the moment which might suggest three shots but, you know, until we do the investigation I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t confirm that.

In terms of the Chinook, the Chinook was operating in daylight in company with another helicopter and at this stage we simply do not know what happened. We’re very eager to know if there was any enemy action involved or whether there was some other problem with the helicopter but at this point I stress we do not know and, hopefully, as time goes on, in the short term, we’ll have some indication where we can give you a little bit more information on that, noting that we need to investigate it in the normal way. We’ll get an accident investigation team involved in this. If enemy was involved, it will probably be investigated in the first instance by an ISAF team that is in-country.

In terms of if it was some sort of mechanical problem, or other problem, we’ll send our own team.

Either way we will be involved in both investigations.

STEPHEN SMITH: Angus and I thought it very important, whilst we are the bearers of terrible news, to bring this news as quickly as we could. We could have waited until more was known or until such time as family circumstances were able to be detailed. We haven’t done that. In the face of such terrible news we thought it was important to bring that to the Australian people as quickly as we were able to, which is now. That’s the first point.

Secondly, we should very carefully understand that the reason there are often official inquiries into the circumstances leading to the death of an Australian soldier are – are more than one and they are very important.

Firstly it gives the family the certainty of the best effort to analyse what occurred and that is very important to the family and that’s been the experience in recent times. Secondly, it enables us to very carefully assess whether there are any additional force protection measures that we should take or whether there’s a need to change procedures or change techniques or change approaches. So I’m not going to be one who will apologise for the time it takes to do that exhaustive and official investigation, in this case in respect of two terrible incidences.

But as the Chief has said, if and when we are in a position to provide any further preliminary information which might better explain the circumstances of these incidences, then we will but the official investigations will take place in the usual way, putting us in the best position to learn any lessons from them but also to give the families of the Australian soldiers concerned the best analysis we can as to the cause of the death of their loved ones.

JOURNALIST: I wasn’t suggesting that the inquiry should be rushed, I was just wondering whether there was any steps that needed to be put in place-

STEPHEN SMITH: No, I wasn’t reflecting in any way on your question, Brendan, nor on you, which I wouldn’t do.

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: There have been – can I just respond to the third part of Brendan’s question. Essentially all soldiers that are recruited into the ANA are biometrically enrolled and they are all vetted by NATO Training Mission Afghanistan.

We obviously work very closely with them, we observe them, and we’re always on the lookout for anybody who behaves in a strange way. So, I guess they are the sorts of protections that we have in place and obviously we will have another look at those sorts of things as we – as we conduct this investigation.

JOURNALIST: Can you completely rule out it was an accident? Is there any chance that maybe it wasn’t deliberate?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: We need to – again, we need to have a look at this but the fact that multiple shots were fired suggests that, you know, it was – it was more – more than that.

JOURNALIST: Do you know if any shots were fired from the Australian victim’s weapon?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Not as far as I know but, again, all this will be subject to investigation.

JOURNALIST: MASHAL is a small base, are there tensions now between the Australian troops and the ANA?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, not as far as I know. It was the Afghan National Army that mounted the security patrol immediately after the incident and obviously it was an Afghan soldier that fired at the individual as he absconded so I think all of that is going to assist in maintaining the relationship at the patrol base.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned that you couldn’t identify the soldier but can you give us some indication of where they might be from in Australia and their families [indistinct].

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Look, I think at this stage, as the Minister said, this is very early on in the process. All I will say is that one individual, the soldier that was shot, was based in Queensland. The member who was aboard the Chinook basically I believe was a Victorian but I’ll leave it at that.

JOURNALIST: Do we know any other details of the service record of this ANA soldier, how long he’d been qualified for, what his rank was at all?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Yes, there is – we know, in fact this morning I saw a narrative on the individual. We have his name, we have his service number and we have a record of his service. So this was not an imposter. This was somebody who’d been in the ANA for a while and I would characterise him as – as a rogue soldier – which is what other coalition members have described people who take these sorts of actions as.

JOURNALIST: There have been a few other incidents of rogue soldiers, not attacking Australians but particularly Americans. What have they done to ease concerns about this and will you be taking any guidance from what the Americans have done previously?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, the first protection is the way people are enrolled into the ANA. I think General Caldwell’s biometric enrolment, the vetting is an important part of that. We’ll clearly have a look at how the Americans have responded to similar incidents that they’ve experienced but let me stress, we’ve been in Afghanistan now for – on this particular mission for six years. We’ve worked with thousands and thousands of Afghans through those six years, right from the outset, and this is the first incident that we’ve had of this nature.

JOURNALIST: Did the record say where he was from, elsewhere in Afghanistan or was he local?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: I must say, I didn’t focus on those sorts of detail and I’m not – I can’t respond to that at the moment.

JOURNALIST: The man who died in the Chinook, was he flying the Chinook at the time?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, he was not.

JOURNALIST: Was he the co-pilot or-

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: He was a passenger. He was an aviator but he was not a member of the Chinook crew.

JOURNALIST: Where was the Chinook going to and from?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: It was on a resupply mission into the province of Zabul. I imagine the mission originated out of Kandahar.

Thank you very much.

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