AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Good morning. This morning, very sadly, it is my duty to inform you of the death of one Australian commando and the wounding of five others during two separate incidents in Afghanistan yesterday. At approximately 11pm Australian Eastern Standard Time last night, a partnered Provincial Response Company Uruzgan and Special Operations Task Group Force Element were conducting clearance operations in southern Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device detonated.
As a result of this explosion, one Australian soldier was killed and two were wounded, one suffering life-threatening wounds and the other suffering serious wounds. Both the wounded have been evacuated by helicopter and are being treated at an ISAF medical facility. Currently they are both listed as seriously ill.
Additionally, in a separate incident yesterday, following an engagement with insurgents using small arms, three soldiers were wounded and are also receiving treatment at a nearby ISAF medical facility. We expect them to become outpatients at the Tarin Kot medical facility later today.
The families of all soldiers have been notified and this morning I'm able to share with you the name of the soldier that was killed. Sergeant Brett Wood was 32 years old and very happily married. He was a magnificent soldier who has had some incredible operational experiences. This was his third deployment to Afghanistan following deployments to Bougainville, East Timor and Iraq. He was also a decorated warrior. In 2006, he was awarded the Medal for Gallantry for his bravery in action as Commando Team Leader in extremely hazardous circumstances in the Chora Valley and in 2007, he was awarded the Special Operations Commander Australia Commendation for his service as the Emergency Action Commander in the Tactical Assault Group.
I am told Brett was highly professional, dedicated, and an exceptionally nice guy. Brett's loss will be deeply felt across Australia's Special Forces community, as he was an inspirational leader and a popular and highly respected member of his unit.
To Brett's wife I offer my deepest condolences. I want her to know that we are going to take care of her and support her as we bring Brett home, lay him to rest, and honour his outstanding service to our nation.
To the families of those wounded, I want them to know that their loved ones are receiving the best possible treatment and we will continue to act in their best interests as they recover.
Just before I hand over to the Minister, I want to reiterate to you that I can't provide any more detail about the operation today as I will not compromise the safety of our people. I stress, operations are ongoing, and my first responsibility and accountability is to those soldiers in harm's way on the ground in Afghanistan. Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, Angus. This is a terribly sad day for our nation, another terrible blow to the Australian Defence Force, to Army and to our Special Forces community. It is also a tragedy for another Australian family, and on behalf of the Government, on behalf of the Parliament, our condolences and our thoughts are with Sergeant Brett Wood's wife and his family.
This is the 24th fatality that we've seen in the course of our time in Afghanistan. So, for 23 other Australian families, this will also be a terrible reminder of the personal and family sacrifice that they have seen in the course of Australia's contribution to Afghanistan.
We continue to be in Afghanistan for what we regard as essential Australian national interest and national security reasons and in the course of this year, we have seen three fatalities. So in particular this will be a terrible reminder to the Larcombe family and to the Atkinson family.
Repeatedly in the course of this year, both the Chief of the Defence Force and I have said that whilst we believe we have made progress in Afghanistan, we had to steel ourselves for further fatalities and further casualties. Our thoughts today are also with the families of those who have been wounded.
As the Chief of the Defence Force has said, this is an ongoing operation, so neither he nor I would propose to be drawn on detailed matters. That will be made public in the usual way in due course. But today we have another terrible blow to our nation, a tragedy for an Australian family, but we continue with resolve because we very strongly believe that what we are doing in Afghanistan, under our United Nations mandate, together with our colleagues and partners in the International Security Assistance Force, that we are seeking and helping to stare down international terrorism, seeking to protect not just Australia's national interests, but the international community's national interests. Thank you.
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: We're ready for questions, but I stress I can't go into any detail about ongoing operations. I will do the best I can.
JOURNALIST: Are you able to say how the soldiers were wounded? Gunshots or-
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, the first three soldiers in the first incident suffered fragmentation wounds as a consequence of a gun fire exchange. The second three – obviously Sergeant Wood and the other two who were wounded - they suffered their injuries or their woundings as a consequence of an improvised explosive device detonation.
JOURNALIST: And that first incident with the fragmentation wounds, was that one incident or a series of incidents?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, that was an incident that happened yesterday morning our time, and the - sorry, early evening our time. The other incident happened in the middle of the night our time.
JOURNALIST: Where was Sergeant Wood from and how is the morale of his unit?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Sergeant Wood was a Victorian. He was 32 years of age. He had 15 years of service in the Australian Regular Army. For the last few years, he has been a member of 2 Commando who have done, as you know, incredible work in Afghanistan over the last few years.
JOURNALIST: How is the morale of his unit?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: The morale in 2 Commando is very high. I know that they will feel this loss very greatly, but they are a magnificent unit. They are a unit of warriors and, to a large extent, they have been the unit most involved in our operations in Afghanistan, and I hold them in the highest regard and I know that this will strengthen their resolve. They are absolutely the best of the best.
JOURNALIST: Can you say where - if they will be transferred to another hospital or medical facility in another country or-
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, both the wounded are seriously ill at the moment and I guess we just have to let the medical process run its course, but if there are any concerns about either of them, the way it would go, the next port of call would normally be the Kandahar Hospital which I visited about a month ago.
It is absolutely the very best facility you could imagine, very much state-of-the-art and then after that, there is always the option to go through Bagram, to Landstuhl in Germany and, as you know, all of our very seriously ill soldiers have ended up in Landstuhl before they come back to Australia and again the care there is absolutely the best.
JOURNALIST: The three soldiers, who were wounded in the shooting incident, were they on a Special Operations Group operation, or were they a mentoring patrol, can you give us some details of what sort of work they were doing?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: They were involved in a clearing operation. They were working with the Provincial Response Company who are Afghans, obviously, and essentially there was an exchange, a gunfire exchange, and they sustained fragmentation wounds. Fortunately, as I said in my statement, we expect them to be outpatients later today and I would hope that they are able to return to their duties later on.
JOURNALIST: Are arrangements being made for the families of the wounded to visit their loved ones?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, it's very early in the piece. I mean, we got this in the middle of the night, and at this stage we know that both of our seriously ill people - they are in a Coalition Role Two facility, medical facility, and we will just see how they go. I will stress they are not very seriously ill, they are seriously ill, so they are one level below some of our other wounded who have come back through Germany and then back through Australia.
So we will just see how the medical side of it goes and then, depending on that, arrangements will be made in the best interests of the patient, and, you know, frankly, I'm not going to second-guess highly qualified medical people in their assessments about these individuals. But suffice it to say, if they end up in Landstuhl in Germany, arrangements will be made for the family to reunite with our wounded soldiers, if that's what happens.
JOURNALIST: Are you able to say whether Sergeant Wood and the others in that incident were in a vehicle or on foot at the time?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: All the people that I've talked about this morning were on foot.
JOURNALIST: And just more generally, on the operation in Afghanistan coming into fighting season at the moment, how would you describe Australia's involvement in that operation and the situation more generally at the moment?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, perhaps if I open up and then I will pass to the Minister, but we were together in Afghanistan very recently and I spent four days in Afghanistan and a lot of that was with our soldiers.
They've had a very good winter. We have made great progress through the winter, but as we have stressed time and time again, and as the Minister just mentioned, we have always said that, come the fighting season, things will get tough, and that's exactly what we're seeing here.
We're into the fighting season and essentially there will be a lot of hard fighting. Unfortunately, there is a lot of these improvised explosive devices around. They are very indiscriminate. They are not only taking the lives of our soldiers, but they also take the lives of innocent civilians, so that's the sort of environment we're operating in, but I stress, the progress we've made in recent times has been really good. We're in places in Uruzgan we've never been before and the coalition right across Afghanistan is making very good progress on the security front. Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Angus. When Angus and I returned from Afghanistan in the aftermath of ANZAC Day, we were very confident that we had made substantial progress in Uruzgan Province, but also that our International Security Assistance Force partners had also made progress in Afghanistan generally. We have consolidated our gains over the winter period, but as Angus and I have both said today and previously, we have been steeling ourselves for the Taliban to fight back in the course of the northern summer fighting season which is now effectively upon us.
In two respects, firstly, the sure and certain knowledge that the Taliban would seek to recover ground, and also, as we've seen, in recent times, high-profile incidents seeking to pursue their objectives through the TV screens of International Security Assistance Force domestic constituencies with high-profile suicide bomb attacks and the like, but we have been steeling ourselves for further fatalities and further casualties and today we see terribly that occur; A tragedy for Sergeant Wood's family and a terrible blow for our nation. On any measure, Sergeant Wood was a very experienced and very courageous soldier and his loss will be very deeply felt by the Defence Force and personnel.
JOURNALIST: Did Sergeant Wood have any children and could you provide details - you mentioned how he was highly decorated, could you provide details of how he got the citation?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: We will provide you a copy of that citation, I think rather than me go through it, but his conduct under fire in the Chora Valley back in 2006 was just extraordinary. He demonstrated courage of the highest order. He was really an inspirational leader in the field environment, in the operational environment, and in regard to your first question, he doesn't have any children.
JOURNALIST: Although progress is being made, do these two instances indicate that the Taliban perhaps - or insurgents, rather - could be getting stronger and do these attacks have anything to do with bin Laden's death at all?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, look, our experience in Uruzgan is that we are making great progress and, in fact, I would suggest that the Taliban have taken many reversals through the winter, but we always said that the big test for us, the big test for the coalition, would be when the fighting season came and what we're seeing is the use of improvised explosive devices against us and unfortunately, we try to mitigate that risk to the maximum extent possible, but on occasion, we get unlucky, and I think that's one of these circumstances.
JOURNALIST: So has there been any increase in violence since bin Laden was killed?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Look, I think the bin Laden side of it, we haven't seen anything in Afghanistan at all related to the death of bin Laden and what we are seeing is the start of the fighting season. If you have a look at the statistics, the trends through the last few years, we always see an increase in violence, an increase in, I suppose, contacts, engagements through the fighting season, and it usually starts towards the end of May, into June, and lasts through to September/October.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned IEDs a couple of times now and the Minister was speaking about suicide bombers. Are suicide bombers being used as a tactic by the Taliban? Is there any kind of change in seeing that coming out at all?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: It's been a tactic that has been used from time to time by the Taliban through the years, but, yes, I think we're seeing more suicide bombings in recent times than we have in the past, and the Minister is absolutely right, that's the threat that the coalition faces. It is a threat that the Afghan Government faces and it's a reality of the operating environment we are in.
STEPHEN SMITH: I will just add - we've seen in recent times and our own analysis has been this is a direct consequence or result of the making of progress in Afghanistan generally. We have seen high-profile efforts by the Taliban and the insurgency, the attack upon the Defence Ministry in Kabul, the assassination of the Kandahar Police Commissioner.
Two recent examples where it's quite clear that in addition to efforts to recover space and ground, the Taliban have also determined that these high-profile effective propaganda attacks are also a piece of weaponry in their armoury and we are steeling ourselves for that danger, as we have steeled ourselves for, in effect, the more immediate danger on the ground, as the fighting season, as the summer fighting season starts in earnest. Sorry.
JOURNALIST: The incident with the commandos, I think you said it was in southern Afghanistan. Can you say whether it was in Uruzgan or somewhere else, Kandahar, for example? And also, I understand there has been a lot of work over the winter period by Australian Special Forces really trying to degrade the capabilities of the insurgents. Can you paint us a picture as to what's happened over those winter months?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Yes, the Australian Special Forces have done a magnificent job degrading, disrupting the capability of the Taliban. In recent weeks, their effect has been incredibly good at the provincial level - this is to shadow arrangements that the Taliban have - and also at the district governance level across Uruzgan. They've also been very active in other provinces, and, as the Minister said in his statement to the Parliament, they have been working very effectively in support of COMISAF's main effort and indeed what they were doing on this occasion; they were doing a clearing activity in support of COMISAF's main effort. I'm not prepared to say where, except to say our Special Forces work quite widely in support of coalition objectives.
STEPHEN SMITH: Sorry, I will just add to that. I mean, often we hear the factual statement that Australia's contribution to Afghanistan is the 10th largest. We are the largest non-NATO contributor. We are the 10th largest overall.
Importantly, we are the third largest contributor so far as Special Forces are concerned, following upon the United States and the United Kingdom. So in that respect we make a very, very substantial contribution which is highly regarded by our partners, in particular the United States. Again, for all of the same reasons as the Chief has outlined, this should not be taken as a comment upon this particular operation, but in my most recent statement to the Parliament, which was Thursday week or so ago, I think 12th May, I detailed the disposition of our forces in Afghanistan, the bulk of which are of course in Uruzgan, but we have forces elsewhere and also detailed, as my predecessor Senator Faulkner had also done, some of the areas of operation, so far as our Special Forces are concerned.
JOURNALIST: Can you give any details in the incident involving insurgents in the small arms fire about casualties on the other side?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: There were casualties on the other side, but I'm not in a position to give you the detail of that. I'm not going to go into any discussion of these operations that have been conducted, and where they might go from here because operations are ongoing, and it's absolutely imperative the safety of the people on the ground that we don't compromise what they're doing.
JOURNALIST: Minister, how many Australian soldiers in total were involved in that incident?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Look, I'm not going to go there because, you know, the Taliban are very effective at looking at what's coming out of our media, and I just don't want to give them any free runs.
JOURNALIST: Can you characterise at all how the death of bin Laden has actually been received generally in Afghanistan?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, certainly the reporting that I'm seeing, there is very little effect on what's happening in Afghanistan. I think the effect of bin Laden's death are more felt in Pakistan and I don't want to go there today because we're here to announce the death of an Australian Commando, and obviously pay our respects to him.
STEPHEN SMITH: Just to reinforce that, our initial assessment in the aftermath of bin Laden's death was that whilst this would be a symbolic and an iconic blow to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and insurgency generally. We weren't expecting that this would cause any great change to circumstances on the ground in Uruzgan or Afghanistan generally, and that remains our view.
JOURNALIST: On another matter, can I just ask-
STEPHEN SMITH: Last question.
JOURNALIST: What has been done to address the sterilising matters at the Middle East medical facility?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, I'm disappointed in what happened there and we have taken all necessary measures to improve the governance arrangements at Al Minhad, but what I would stress, that hospital - it's not a hospital, it's a small health unit that does minor surgical procedures, such as at removal of skin lesions, moles and the like. None of our seriously wounded people travel through there. They all go through the system that I described earlier on, and all of those issues that we reported in the media are basically - they've all been fixed. So, I'm very comfortable that we're in the right place now. Thank you.
JOURNALIST: Are you aware of any cases?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Look, I don't expect there to be any cases because the number of surgical procedures conducted there was very, very minimal and I would assess the risk as very low. However, there is a very low risk and we are making sure that we do everything we can to ensure that nobody has been inadvertently infected. I don't think there will be any, but it's imperative that we do the right thing by our people. Thank you. Thank you.