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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 474

Mr ROBERT (4:35 PM) —I rise to honour Trooper Mark Gregor Donaldson VC, only the 97th recipient of the Victoria Cross in Australia and the first in 40 years and, of course, the first to receive the VC of Australia. The Victoria Cross is awarded only for the most conspicuous acts of gallantry. On 16 January 2009 Trooper Donaldson received his VC for such acts while serving with the Special Operations Task Group during Operation Slipper in Oruzgan Province in Afghanistan.

Trooper Donaldson was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, in 1979. He graduated from high school in 1996 and enlisted in the Australian Army on 18 June 2002, entering recruit training at the Army Recruit Training Centre, Kapooka. Clearly the boy could shoot. He was awarded best shot and best at physical training in his platoon. Subsequently he was allocated to the Royal Australian Infantry Corps and posted to the School of Infantry. He excelled in his initial training, again being awarded recognition as  best shot and best at physical training and most outstanding soldier in his platoon. Subsequently he was posted to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in Townsville.

Trooper Donaldson decided to pursue his ambition to join the Special Air Service Regiment and, after completing the Special Air Service Regiment selection course—with which, in itself, it is no mean feat simply to be standing at the end of what I know as the Carter course—in April 2004 he was posted to the SAS Regiment. In May he turned up at the front door, posted to 1 Troop, 3 SAS Squadron. He was then deployed to operations in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was married to Emma and has a daughter Kaylee.

In August 2008, Donaldson was wounded in action during night-time operations in Oruzgan province. Then less than one month later, on 2 September 2008, while travelling with a combined Australian, Afghan and US convoy, the convoy was ambushed by a large contingency of Taliban armed with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The convoy was overwhelmed by numbers and sheer gunfire for two hours before being able to extricate themselves to a safe area. Several casualties were suffered on the patrol and Donaldson deliberately placed himself in enemy fire to allow the wounded to be carried to safety. He constantly changed positions to find a vantage point while engaging the enemy. The disregard for his own safety allowed time for the wounded in his convoy to move to safer ground. Those who were not wounded, including Donaldson himself, were required to run beside the vehicle to exit the ambush area.

Donaldson noticed, though, that, 80 metres behind the convoy, a wounded Afghan interpreter had been left behind. Again, Donaldson put his safety behind that of others and ran 80 metres to assist the Afghan interpreter. Running over open ground, Donaldson came under intense fire from the enemy. He picked up the wounded man and ran back to safety, carrying and then administering first aid to the coalition force interpreter, constantly being fired at by the enemy with machine-gun and rocket fire. This was an Afghan interpreter—not an Australian citizen but a man of Afghan background whom Trooper Donaldson risked his own life to go back and recover.

The full citation for the Victoria Cross is worth a read for all Australians. It exemplifies bravery in the extreme. The Victoria Cross is the pre-eminent award for acts of bravery in wartime and is our highest military honour. It is awarded to people who, in the presence of the enemy, display the most conspicuous gallantry, a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty.

The Victoria Cross was created by Queen Victoria in 1856 and made retrospective to 1854 to cover the period of the Crimean War. Until the Victoria Cross for Australia was created in 1991, Australians were eligible for the VC and other awards under the imperial system. The Imperial Victoria Cross was awarded to 96 Australians—91 received the Victoria Cross while serving with Australian forces and five Australians received the award while serving with South African and British units.

Australians were first recognised for their gallantry in the Boer War and of course more recently, with Keith Payne, in the Vietnam War. Six VCs were awarded in the Boer War, 64 in World War I, two in North Russia in 1919, 20 in World War II, four in Vietnam and, of course, one in Afghanistan. Nine of the crosses awarded in World War I were for Australians at Gallipoli. The Victoria Cross for Australia was instituted in the Australian honours system by letters patent on 15 January 1991. It replaced the imperial award. The first to receive the Victoria Cross was Captain Sir Neville Howse during the Boer War. He also served in World War I and later as the Commonwealth Minister for Health, Defence and Repatriation. The most recent recipient, Keith Payne VC OAM, received it for gallantry during the Vietnam War on 24 May 1969. While under heavy enemy fire, he instigated a daring rescue of more than 40 men, many of them wounded, and led the party back to the battalion base.

The Governor-General awards the Victoria Cross, with the approval of the sovereign, on the recommendation of the Minister for Defence. It may be awarded posthumously. The Victoria Cross is designed in the form of the Maltese Cross. In the centre of the medal is a lion guardant standing upon the Royal Crown. The words ‘For valour’ are inscribed below. The Victoria Cross is suspended from a bar by a crimson ribbon. On the reverse of the cross the date of the act of bravery is inscribed, along with the name, rank and unit of the recipient. The Victoria Cross has, from the first, been made by Messrs Hancock, London jewellers, and is hand fashioned. The metal used is taken from the guns captured from the Russians at Sebastopol during the Crimean War from 1854 to 1856. To quote the Anzac Day website:

The glorious fellowship of the Victoria Cross remains unique, it has no order nor chapel.

…                     …                   …

It is confined to no caste, imposes no religious requirement nor colour bar. In the words of the Warrant ‘Neither rank nor long service, nor wounds, nor any other circumstance or condition whatsoever, save the merit of conspicuous bravery’ shall entitle a man to the award.

There are only 10 surviving members of this grand fellowship alive today. Words simply fail to express the unsurpassed heroism shown by these recipients. They stand tall and alone and separate by their sheer deeds.

If freedom is indeed the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it, then Trooper Donaldson VC stands tall in our nation’s history, especially in our nation’s modern military history. As I said previously in the House, in the great tradition of that ancient warrior, statesman and king, Pericles, who founded the great Athenian empire 2½ thousand years ago and led that nation during the first two years of the Peloponnesian War, ‘What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.’ Trooper Donaldson risked his life to save an Afghan national, crossing 80 metres of ground criss-crossed by machine-gun fire. His heroism inspires countless generations and touches lives around the world. It stands as a true testament of the capacity and the calibre of man. We honour him today.