Wollongong soldier awarded gallantry medal

More than a year after a young soldier from Wollongong was nominated for the Victoria Cross – and awarded the nation’s second-highest military honour – details of his exploits have emerged.

Known only as ‘‘Private Simon’’ to protect his identity, the Special Forces soldier was awarded the Star of Gallantry in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last year.

At the time, defence officials refused to issue any details of the man – including his home town – citing operational reasons.

It is now clear that his award came after extraordinary heroism in a four-day battle at Shah Wali Kot in the Gumbad Valley in Afghanistan in July 2010.

Commandos were on a mission to clear a hostile area where one month earlier Digger Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith had been engaged in action that earned him the Victoria Cross.

They soon found themselves in a battle of life and death with a strong and experienced Taliban force. The Australian forces were low on ammunition and food and had no batteries left for operational communications.

As the battle hung in the balance, Private Simon climbed onto the roof of a  compound, carrying a heavy MAG58 machinegun.

According to one witness, ‘‘he fired it until it broke’’.

‘‘Exposed to an enemy angry it could not hit him as it returned less accurate fire, Private Simon silenced three of six enemy guns,’’ veteran journalist Chris Masters reports.

Soon after, now with one elbow bleeding and swollen from a fragmentation strike, the young soldier climbed an incline and – in full view of the enemy – took them on with his M4 machinegun and grenade launcher.

‘‘He returned fire with controlled double taps, dropping the insurgents, who were becoming more frantic in an effort to break out and make a run for the green belt,’’ reported his platoon commander .

Private Simon, who was back in Afghanistan this year and promoted to lance corporal, saved two teams as he accounted for one front on his own.

Another soldier who witnessed his actions called him ‘‘a frigging idiot or a frigging legend’’.

Details of his actions come towards the end of the book Uncommon Soldier, by Masters.

The fact that Private Simon’s heroism slipped under the radar appears to confirm Masters’ critical views on the defence bureaucracy.

‘‘Defence media continues to drive its 1980s model of media management, servicing the home towners and failing to connect where it really matters,’’ he writes.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Defence said it was policy not to release citation details for members of the Special Forces as many had a protected identity.

‘‘Awards such as this are granted to recognise an individual’s outstanding performance during operational service and are...not for Department of Defence publicity purposes,’’ she said.

Masters developed a high respect for Private Simon after spending time with him in Australia and with colleagues on combat missions in Afghanistan.

He describes a man who first served in combat while still a teenager but who paid close attention to learning the local language, Pashto, and developing his medical skills.

‘‘He was able to switch from the soft humanitarian tasks to kinetic combat roles within seconds,’’ reported his platoon commander.

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