As the ADF begins to grapple with its "moral authority" now in tatters, two former Townsville soldiers turned special operators spoke of the cost at which war has come.

A long-awaited inquiry into allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan has uncovered a culture of "secrecy, fabrication and deceit".

In his appointment as the Inspector-General Australian Defence Force, Major General Paul Brereton recommended 19 soldiers be investigated by the Australian Federal Police for the "murder" of 39 prisoners and civilians, and the cruel treatment of two others.

 

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A former 3rd Brigade rifleman, now Special Forces operator, said the mood was tense as he and colleagues watched the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) General Angus Campbell deliver his response.

"This is insane, it hasn't been investigated (by the AFP)," the soldier said. "No officers will be welcome at the funerals of men who die from going over the edge on this."

Australian Army soldiers from Special Operations Task Group and their Afghan National Security Force partners board a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter at Multi-National Base Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan province, southern Afghanistan, in 2012.
Australian Army soldiers from Special Operations Task Group and their Afghan National Security Force partners board a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter at Multi-National Base Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan province, southern Afghanistan, in 2012.

In delivering his response, General Campbell acknowledged the overwhelming number of serving members who had done the right thing on operations during the reporting period, with more than 26,000 Australians having served in Afghanistan, 3000 of them in the Special Operations Task Group.

However, the report didn't sugar-coat a culture problem within parts of the Special Air Service Regiment, calling out "a warrior culture, a misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the regiment's heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service".

Retired Special Forces Commando Officer Heston Russell began his 16-year career in Townsville at the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment before transferring to 2 Commando.

Major Heston (retd) deployed to Afghanistan four times and Iraq twice. He said while the report was sobering and accusations should be investigated, any calls for revoking unit citations should be dismissed.

 

"I'm disgusted and disappointed at the CDF's call for patience while he takes immediate action to request the Governor-General strip the Meritorious Unit Citation from all those who served and were awarded it during the period of 2007 to 2013," he said.

"This includes 20 dead heroes who died in combat, let alone those who have died from their injuries or illnesses since. I don't understand how this can be conducted and we'll be petitioning for this to not occur at all, particularly for those dead heroes to not have their honours and awards stripped and their families suffer even further."

Major Heston (retd) was recently forced to defend his unit after his platoon was accused in an ABC report of murdering an Afghan prisoner during a mission in Afghanistan in 2012 because there weren't enough seats on a helicopter.

He unequivocally denied the allegation and said it should be subjected to an investigation to prove its merit.

He has now turned his attention to the mental health of his colleagues, fearing the reputations of all will be tarnished by the actions of few.

THOMPSON CALLS FOR TRIAL BEFORE COMPENSATION

A Federal MP has called for war crime allegations to be prosecuted before compensation is paid to the families of Afghan victims.

Herbert MP Phillip Thompson said it was crucial the public understood findings revealed in the Afghanistan Inquiry Report were allegations until such point any prosecutions eventuated.

"These are allegations so I want to be very clear from the very start that while they are serious allegations there is a process that must be followed which includes the forming of the Office of the Special Investigator," he said.

"We have a special forces community that can't talk on the record because of protected identity and the nature of their role and while there could be guilt found that's up to the special investigator, it needs to be factual and done correctly."

Herbert MP Phillip Thompson speaks with media during the 2020 state election. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.
Herbert MP Phillip Thompson speaks with media during the 2020 state election. PICTURE: MATT TAYLOR.

The report recommended 36 incidents be referred to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation involving 19 soldiers be investigated for the "murder" of 39 prisoners and civilians, and the cruel treatment of two others.

Even before these matters end up in court, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force believes the federal government should pay compensation to the families of victims in Afghanistan.

Mr Thompson disagreed.

"I personally would think the trial, if there is a trial, should be completed before compensation is considered."

Originally published as BATTLE LINES DRAWN: 'Disgusted' ex-soldiers speak out


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