When he the broke the cover of a dusty fig orchard and charged uphill towards Taliban machine guns in Afghanistan last summer, Corporal Benjamin Roberts-Smith did not spare a thought for his own safety.
It was the thought of his comradesâ€™ families that spurred him to hurl himself into a hail of bullets and draw fire away from his platoon, before single-handedly flattening two enemy machine gun squads.
The same humility and dedication to duty was on show as the 32-year-old Australian was awarded the Victoria Cross at his Special Air Service regiment’s home base, Campbell Barracks, in Perth yesterday.
Brushing off praise for his gallantry as he accepted the highest military decoration for valour in the face of the enemy, he insisted that the real heroes are those who have lost their lives in combat and dedicated his award to his regiment, with whom he said he was â€œso proudâ€ to serve.
His wife, Emma, beamed with pride with the coupleâ€™s five-month-old twins in her arms as she watched her husband become the most decorated soldier in Australia.
Corporal Roberts-Smith now wears one of only four Victoria Crosses awarded in the almost decade-long war in Afghanistan, and he adds it to the Medal of Gallantry which he won in 2006 for an earlier tour of duty.
Australia has the largest military commitment in Afghanistan of any country outside NATO, with 1,550 Australian troops there. Last year was the deadliest on record, with the deployment seeing 10 of its 21 deaths since 2001.
The Victoria Cross citation said the soldier’s actions showed “most conspicuous gallantry” and “total disregard for his own safety”. His bravery was a living enactment of a pledge tattooed across his chest: “I will not fail my brothers”.
Corporal Roberts-Smith described how his platoon came under heavy fire as he lead a patrol in northern Kandahar Province last June 11, with two men to his left pinned down and dangerously exposed as gunfire ripping up the ground around them.
“One of them was copping a lot,” he said. “He couldn’t even fight back, couldn’t move. At that point I decided I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to wait until someone got hit.
“I know their families, they know mine. They were fighting hard. I saw an opportunity to move forward, so I did that. I’m not going to let someone get hit while I sit here doing nothing.”
After breaking cover and drawing fire away from his patrol, allowing his comrades to return fire, he charged to within 65 feet (20 metres).
Crawling along the low stone wall shielding the enemy, he killed one gunner with a sniper shot and single-handedly overpowered two other squads.
Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, told him yesterday: “You went to Afghanistan a soldier, you came back a hero. Our nation is enriched by you being among our number.”
After accepting the award, Corporal Roberts-Smith said he had no interest in being called a hero. “I hear the word hero a lot. To me heroes are … the guys that put their hand up willingly and they didn’t come back. They’re our mates and their families live with that every day.”
He went on: ”I do what I do because I believe in the country that we live in. I believe we are making a difference in stemming the flow of terrorism into Australia. I want my children to be able to live as everyone does now without the fear of getting on a bus and having it blow up.”
His father, Len, said that he was “immensely proud” of his son. “As a parent, of course I worry enormously. We know the circumstances he goes into and we know our son, so we know he’s going to be at the forefront. But we’re very proud of him,” he said.
Corporal Roberts-Smith now joins an elite group of Victoria Cross winners. Mark Donaldson became the first Australian to be decorated with the award since the Vietnam war in 2009 in recognition of his gallantry in exposing himself to enemy fire to protect injured troops and rescuing an interpreter.
The New Zealand commando Willie Apiata was decorated with the award in 2007 and Bryan Budd, a British paratrooper, was given a posthumous award that same year.