Chief of the Defence Force - Death of an Australian Soldier in Afghanistan 6 June 2011
7 June 2011
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON, CHIEF OF DEFENCE FORCE:
Good morning. It is my very solemn duty this morning to report the death of another Australian soldier in Afghanistan. Yesterday evening, during a Special Operations Task Group and Afghan National police partnered patrol, an Australian Combat Engineer was shot during a small arms engagement with insurgents in northern Helmand. Unfortunately, despite the rapid application of first aid and his evacuation by helicopter to the Tarin Kot Role II medical facility, the soldier succumbed to his wounds.
As this operation has now concluded, I'm able to share with you that it involved two phases. The initial phase saw the patrol deploy to an area in northern Helmand known to be an insurgent distribution and supply cell. This was confirmed when a large munitions cache - the largest discovered by Australian forces this year - was found. It contained anti?personnel mines, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition, assault rifles, communications equipment and components for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices.
At the time of the discovery, the partnered patrol came under small arms fire from two locations. The commander on the ground made the decision to destroy the cache with explosives.
The patrol then moved on to the second phase of the operation in another area of interest at a separate location. Shortly after arrival at the second location, the partnered patrol again came under heavy small arms fire from multiple directions.
During this second engagement, the Special Operations Task Group soldier was shot by insurgents while he was in an overwatch position. His mates quickly moved to him under heavy fire, commenced first aid and called for an aero-medical evacuation. Very sadly, despite these efforts, this young man could not be saved.
The soldier's family were notified of their loss overnight. They are receiving assistance from Defence and though we can't alleviate their pain, we will continue to do all we can to support them as they grieve. I offer this very close family my condolences on behalf of all the men and women of the Australian Defence Force.
At the request of the family, I'm not releasing the soldier's name this morning. However, I can tell you that he was 23-years-old and was on his second tour of Afghanistan, having previously deployed with Reconstruction Task Force-3 in 2007. I understand the soldier was a superb young man whose easy-going nature made him very popular within his unit. He was extremely fit, as you would expect of a qualified combat fitness leader. He was also a great team member, dedicated and professional whose range of skills and qualifications were more than you could rightly expect of someone so young.
Though nothing will ease their sense of loss, I want this soldier's family to know that their loved one, his SOTG mates and their Afghan National Police partners were undertaking vital work in Afghanistan yesterday. The discovery and destruction of this massive cache of weapons, ammunition and improvised explosive device components will undoubtedly prevent other casualties and will impede the insurgency in northern Helmand and in Uruzgan.
This brave young soldier is the fourth we have lost in just over two weeks - undoubtedly making this a very difficult time for us all but most importantly, the families of all the soldiers we have lost in Afghanistan. However, I know our soldiers on the ground are incredibly resilient and determined. They believe they are making a substantial difference, they believe they are winning. While this will shake them, I am confident that they will continue making a substantial and enduring contribution to Afghanistan. I will now take your questions.
JOURNALIST: Was he a Commando or Special Air Service Regiment?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, he was a Combat Engineer who was with the Incident Response Regiment which of course is a part of the Special Operations Task Group.
JOURNALIST: CDF, you said they were operating in northern Helmand, is that unusual for our Special Forces? We've known for a while that they've been operating in Kandahar outside of Uruzgan, is it normal now for our Special Forces to be operating in Helmand as well?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Our Special Forces support COMISAF's main effort. The current main effort is in Helmand and moving into northern Helmand. So it is not unusual in that sense and, of course, over the last few years our Special Forces have been into Helmand a number of times.
JOURNALIST: Can you give us any other details about him ? married, children?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, he was single, 23 years of age, a very fine, young man with great potential. He was very well liked, he was very much a valued member of the team.
JOURNALIST: When they come across a large quantity of weapons or weaponry like this, where does it come from? Is it stuff that's been lying around for years or is it being imported from elsewhere?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, this was - I would say without, you know, actually being there, I'm aware that within that cache was 70 anti?personnel mines. Now that obviously had come in in recent times. A lot of the improvised explosive devices that we see in Uruzgan are resupplied through Helmand. So this was a very important cache to destroy and, you know, that aspect of the operation was very, very successful. I just deeply regret that we lost a very fine young soldier during the course of the operation.
JOURNALIST: Do you know where it comes from originally though?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: All I've seen is a description of what was contained within the cache. Where it came from originally, I don't know without having the precise detail. We will be looking at that. Unfortunately, we will not be able to exploit it because of the tactical situation. The cache was destroyed in place by explosive charges.
JOURNALIST: When you say the cache was destroyed, can you give us a sense of was it in a compound, in a house, you said it was a massive cache, what sort of size are we talking about?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: I haven't got the detail, that precise detail but I have a list of everything that was in the cache and ?
JOURNALIST: That was recorded before –
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Everything was recorded but because of the tactical situation, they were being engaged with small arms fire from two directions, they weren't in a position to take the cache and put it on the helicopters and take it back for exploitation. We have a complete list of what was contained within the cache.
JOURNALIST: You said that Australian soldiers will be, I think your words were, shaken by the fact that we've had four deaths in the space of around two weeks. How shaken and what sort of message does Defence need to give to them to assure them and support them during this?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, I was in Afghanistan quite recently, about a month ago, our soldiers have a very high level of morale at the moment. They think they're winning. They think they're making a difference and you only have to look at the remarks of Corporal Roberts?Smith. He believes that we're winning, he believes that we're making a difference. Now that view is reflected right across, right across our forces that are deployed in Uruzgan at the moment. We're now in areas we've never been before. We are prevailing. The Taliban are finding it incredibly hard to mount operations in the province of Uruzgan. Does that mean that we are into a situation where the risk is lowered? Absolutely not. The Taliban will continue to fight and they will continue to target our forces. So we must expect more losses but when you lose somebody there's always a sense of loss, there's sadness but there's also a steely resolve that OK, this sacrifice will not be in vain. We need to continue with our mission, we are making a difference and we are going to train and mentor these 4th Brigade soldiers so that we can leave here in a year or two. That's how we're going, we're going well.
JOURNALIST: Can you understand public support though waning with each death and particularly the quick succession that we've seen in the last fortnight?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, yeah, I can understand that ? I can understand the concern out there but I would say to the public that we've just had the most successful winter we've ever had. We're in a much better tactical position than we've ever been before. We are making a difference. The Taliban in Uruzgan is totally disrupted and that's because of the efforts of our people working very effectively with the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police and we are doing very well in a military achievement sense. Now, unfortunately along the way we will lose soldiers. We are fighting a war. People fire weapons in warfare and from time to time we are going to lose somebody but believe me, we are making great process.
JOURNALIST: CDF, do you have any idea of how many Taliban or insurgents were killed in these engagements with the situation last night?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: I haven't got that information to hand but as always we do well in terms of the ratios, if that's what you're getting at. I haven't got that detail, no.
JOURNALIST: CDF, can you give an idea of what actually happened after this casualty was incurred and he was evacuated, did our guys withdraw or did the contact continue?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: This happened at the point at which they were preparing to withdraw and this individual was in an overwatch position and unfortunately, he sustained a gunshot wound which was life?threatening and subsequently died of his wounds.
JOURNALIST: Was close air support involved?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Yes, close air support had been called in and was available.
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Yes, I believe so but again, I would like to just confirm the detail of that but it was there and I understand it was used.
JOURNALIST: Was the Taliban force significant?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: We don't know how many Taliban were there but certainly it was a troops in contact that lasted for 80 minutes, so I would say that there was a sizeable number of Taliban in the area.
JOURNALIST: Just following on from the earlier question, David's earlier question, there is perhaps understandably, because of the number of deaths and the increased intensity of the fighting at the moment, there have been calls for Australia to withdraw from Afghanistan immediately. In the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden there's been similar calls in the United States. What would happen if we pulled out immediately?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, I just don't think that's plausible. If we pull out immediately we leave behind a very messy situation in the province of Uruzgan. Look, why would you pull out when you are making the best progress you've ever made? You have the Taliban completely disrupted and on the back foot, why, why would you do it? Believe me, we need to stay the course, we are getting to the stage where we're seeing absolutely first-class results with the people we're mentoring. There's one Kandak that’s almost independent now and that means that that Kandak will very shortly be able to operate completely on its own without any assistance from us. We anticipate over the next 12 to 24 months we will be in a situation where the whole brigade will be independent and will be capable of providing the necessary security in the province.
At the same time, Special Forces are operating with the Afghan National Police and again are having great success in mentoring and training the Afghans. And here's another example of a partnered patrol that achieved the objective. We found a huge cache, it has been destroyed and as a consequence of that those 70 anti?personnel mines will not be used against us or indeed anybody else including the civil population. So, we are making progress and we're making good progress.
JOURNALIST: Just back to Brendan's question about where these anti?personnel mines may have come from, you said that the stuff that's found is recorded, I'm assuming photographically, does Australia have a role in working out where it comes from or does that just get passed on to ISAF?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Part of the intelligence process is when we find something we exploit it. Unfortunately, in these circumstances, because we've destroyed it we won't be able to look at it in fine detail and exploit it to the nth degree but we will know what the mines were and probably, we'll be able to deduce where they came from. But I can't say to you standing here right now, oh, they come from such and such a place. I don't know until I get the intelligence reports. I'm not in a position to say anything and anyway, I probably couldn't say it anyway because it would be highly classified.
JOURNALIST: CDF, can you say what State this soldier was from and can you give us an update on the hunt for the ANA soldier who killed an Australian a soldier a week ago?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: The individual was born in NSW but I understand his family no longer reside in NSW. In terms of the hunt for the person that killed Andrew Jones, at this stage we haven't made any further progress over what's been reported in recent times.
JOURNALIST: Have we got any further in terms of understanding the ANA soldier's motivation in that incident?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, but we’re seized – we and the ANA and the ANP are seized with a need to find him, apprehend him and bring him to justice.
JOURNALIST: Are we hearing anything at all about claims going around boasting about what he'd done or the Taliban is claiming responsibility?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: I understand the Taliban has claimed responsibility but I'm not aware of him making boasts, I can't comment on that.
JOURNALIST: Has this been the deadliest start to the fighting season in some years for Australia?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, you may recall, I was standing here 12 months ago, in early June last year we had a very bad run. We had five killed in the early part of June and then we had another casualty shortly thereafter. So this is similar to the start of the fighting season last year.
JOURNALIST: What’s it a result of, is it a string of unfortunate circumstances or is it a result of the fact that we're increasing the tempo of operations?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, I think it's a bit of both. I think we are taking the fight to the Taliban and our Special Operations Task Group is involved in operations to disrupt the Taliban, to ensure that they don't feel safe anywhere they are operating and they’ve been very successful in disrupting their operations and achieving that objective. In terms of the unfortunate aspect, we've been there in Afghanistan on this particular part of our mission for six years and the circumstances surrounding the death of Andrew Jones we've never seen anything like that before and I guess we, like some of our friends, have been subject to action by a rogue soldier, so that's unusual. So it's a bit of both.
JOURNALIST: Just in that situation with Andrew Jones, can you now properly describe the chain of events in that it's been said that he was walking down stairs when he was shot. Can you properly paint a picture of exactly how that played out?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: It's all under investigation but I can, I think, because I stood here a few days ago on the basis of very scant information, I can confirm that Andrew Jones was shot by the rogue soldier who was in the tower. Andrew had come out of his accommodation and as he was walking across the area immediately in front of his accommodation he was shot at that time. The second Afghan soldier was – he wasn’t actually in the tower, he was on his way back to the tower. They are the circumstances and we won't say any more about it until it is fully investigated.
JOURNALIST: Andrew hadn’t been on duty in the tower with the ANA soldier that shot him?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: No, he just came out of his accommodation block, he was walking across towards the tower when the shots were fired. One of the things about this, no Australian soldier observed these circumstances. So, I think we should just wait now for the investigation and there will be no further comment on that at this stage. Any further questions? We might wrap it up shortly.
JOURNALIST: Just one, were you satisfied with the response time of the medical evacuation helicopter?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: He was in Tarin Kot within less than an hour after being shot, so that's a great outcome but unfortunately, we were unable to save him.
JOURNALIST: And you're satisfied with the air support as well during the contact?
AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, as far as I know, I can't really comment because, you know, I'm just working off the first reports that we've had. Certainly, the indications are that everything went the way it should have done on the ground but I can't comment in detail. OK, thank you very much.
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