The Victoria Cross was a cross to bear, Ben Roberts-Smith has told his defamation trial, saying it “put a target on my back” for other soldiers jealous of his medal.
In the witness box for a second straight day, the former corporal detailed at length his missions in Afghanistan, and the tensions within the SAS as soldiers were sent back for repeated deployments in a long, grinding and costly war.
Roberts-Smith was asked to describe his actions during the brutal battle at Tizak in 2010, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross, after storming two machine gun posts, killing the gunners.
Recently declassified defence documents suggest at least 76 insurgents were killed in the battle of Tizak.
Roberts-Smith told the court the second machine-gunner he killed “was at best, 15 years old”. The court heard the gunner was a legitimate target, killed within the rules of engagement, but Roberts-Smith said he continued to “struggle” with his death.
Roberts-Smith said that, within the SAS, attitudes of other soldiers towards him changed dramatically after his investiture with the VC.
“For all the good it has brought me and enabled me to do, it is unfortunately the case, in my instance particularly, that it has also brought me a lot of misfortune and pain.
“It put a target on my back.”
Roberts-Smith said he was “white-anted” by other soldiers, particularly during his final deployment in 2012. The court heard that on a noticeboard within the SAS compound at Tarin Kowt, he was derided by his nickname ‘RS’ over night-time reconnaissance missions he was leading: “RS is trying to win another medal,” one scrawled note read.
Asked whether the Australian military’s highest honour was “a cross to bear”, Roberts-Smith agreed.
“Yes I do … as soon as you become a tall poppy that becomes a chance to belittle you, and undermine you, and to use that award against you, out of pure spite.”
Roberts-Smith detailed growing tensions, and confrontations, with fellow SAS soldiers, described in court as Person 7, Person 6 and Person 10. Those former soldiers are expected to give evidence later in this trial.
Documents before the court allege, that in the day after Sgt Blaine Diddams, a close friend of Roberts-Smith, was killed during a mission, Roberts-Smith told Person 7:
“I’m going to talk the talk, make sure I walk the walk. Before this trip is over I’m going to choke a bloke to death and watch the life drain out of his eyes.”
Roberts-Smith told the court he never said those words.
“He [Person 7] has a flair for the dramatic. It’s not how I speak and I never will. It’s ridiculous.”
Roberts-Smith did concede he punched Person 10 following a failed mission in the Chora Valley, saying he regretted hitting his comrade, but that he was frustrated because Person 10 had jeopardised the mission by firing indiscriminately, including at an Afghan woman and child.
On Thursday, Nicholas Owens SC acting for the newspapers, told the court suggestions the allegations against Roberts-Smith were motivated by jealousy were “inherently implausible”.
The newspapers will call 21 current and former SAS soldiers to give evidence about what they saw and did in Afghanistan.
“Suggestions that the testimony of 21 men is a fabrication, the product of jealousy or the product of trauma, is inherently implausible,” he said.
“Some of these witnesses were involved in crimes themselves. Is it really to be supposed that a man, himself, would confess to murder just so as to give vent to some jealousy over a medal?”
Roberts-Smith is suing the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times for defamation over a series of reports published in 2018 that he alleges are defamatory because they portray him as someone who “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” and committed war crimes including murder.
The 42-year-old has consistently denied the allegations, saying they are “false”, “baseless” and “completely without any foundation in truth”. The newspapers are defending their reporting as true.
The trial is expected to run for at least 10 weeks.