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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12644


Mr TRUSS (Wide BayLeader of The Nationals) (17:08): Today I join my parliamentary colleagues in mourning the loss of the three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and the wounding of seven others. The incident in the forward-operating base was the most tragic at war for Australia in 40 years. I pay tribute to Captain Bryce Duffy, Corporal Ashley Birt and Lance Corporal Luke Gavin who died seemingly unnecessarily on parade at the hand of a man they thought was a friend and ally. They died as heroes, men who answered the call of their country in the tradition of the ANZACs and those over a century who have fought to keep our country safe.

The loss of these three Australian soldiers far from home came as a shock to all Australians. Brendan Nicholson wrote in the Australian today:

It is not widely known that of the 32 Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan during the past decade, 15 were involved in training and mentoring Afghan troops. Many more have been wounded.

The weekend killings highlight the dangers faced daily by these instructors, who often work from forward-operating bases and patrol bases, small forts built in valleys captured from the insurgents in what was once the Taliban heartland.

During a parade, the experienced Afghan soldier blasted 10 of the Australians and several Afghans with an assault rifle.

Today I particularly want to pay tribute to Corporal Ashley Birt. Corporal Birt was from Gympie in my electorate. He was just 22. He graduated from the Gympie State High School in 2006 with five high achievements. He excelled in most sports but hockey was his favourite. He travelled about 100 kilometres up the road to play hockey in Maryborough with Brothers for five years. He and his family regularly made the trip. He excelled in hockey and entered representative level and rose to be selected as a shadow in the Australian country under-21 team. He was a talented sportsman.

Our armed forces work in dangerous places under trying circumstances, but tragic news always comes hard, with a jolt. I extend my personal condolences to Corporal Birt's family. Don and Linda both work for the Gympie Regional Council. Ashley's brother, Dale, was also in Afghanistan and will return with his brother's body. His family said that Ashley was a proud soldier who loved his job. I want to assure his family that we as a nation and a community are equally proud of him. Corporal Birt was an outstanding and enthusiastic soldier, a very fine Australian. He joined the Army in 2007 and was allotted to the Royal Australian Engineers as a geospatial technician. He was in the 1st Topographical Survey Squadron.

His service career was impressive. He was quickly promoted. He became a lance corporal in February this year and a corporal in April. He had been identified as a natural leader, a young man with a great future. He was nominated for a soldiers medallion for the work he did in helping rebuild lives in the wake of the Queensland floods. His home town of Gympie, of course, was amongst those that were flooded in that widespread event. He also earned military honour and recognition: the Australian Defence Medal, the Australian Service Medal with clasp Solomon Islands II, the Australian Service medal with clasp International Coalition Against Terrorism, the Afghanistan campaign medal, and the NATO non-article 5 medal with clasp International Security Assistance Force. These are truly remarkable awards in recognition of outstanding service, and all this for a soldier who was just 22.

The bitter irony of his death is not lost on any of us. Our troops are in Afghanistan mentoring Afghan soldiers to provide security to the Afghan people. This is a rebuilding mission, a mission to put Afghanistan on course to full self-determination and to provide safety and cohesion for the people of Afghanistan. The success of this training work is pivotal to bringing forward the day when Australia can leave Afghanistan to care for itself. It is a mission of the most strategic importance to Australia and our people. The scourge of terrorism knows no borders and we are striking at its roots. Yes, it has been a military operation, but it is also a battle for the hearts and minds of the people who live in those places. The relationship being forged by our troops with the Afghan people is a vital component in curbing, subduing and ultimately defeating the mentality that begets terrorism and breeds terrorists.

Just a few weeks ago Corporal Birt was interviewed on Ten News and he was asked about how safe he felt mentoring Afghan soldiers. He said: 'The locals always get screened. They've got to come through all the security first before they even get into this place.' I guess in the aftermath of these tragic events some may say that confidence was unfortunately misplaced. I think it more reflects on the realities that our troops face every day and the bravery our troops display day in, day out. In a country like Afghanistan, our soldiers are never out of danger. The knowledge of the dangers of this unique mission, combined with the realisation of the importance of the task, does not make Corporal Birt's loss any easier to bear.

Gympie is one of Queensland's oldest towns and is proud of its contribution to Australia's wartime effort. The city has fine memorial gates and a marvellous memorial wall. After many years, a new name has to be added to those gates. An extra name will go on the Gympie State High School's new honour board in the school's 100th year. The flags of the city and the region fly low. The Melbourne Cup race meeting at the town's racecourse paused yesterday to remember. The Gympie Regional Council meeting began with prayers. The horror of war came to Gympie this week after so many years of peace. The cost of the Afghanistan commitment became real to another community which has lost one of its own, one of its finest. They will never forget his engaging smile and his warm personality. But I hope that those feeling the pain of his loss can take some consolation in knowing his was a sacrifice in the name of creating a new and safer Afghanistan and, as a result, a new and safer world for all of us.