Senior Veterans are ardently urging the federal government to dismiss the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF), General Angus Campbell's reiterated effort to revoke awards for exceptional service during war from soldiers who exhibited resolve and honour in Afghanistan. According to sources, General Campbell has recently communicated with at least seven officers indicating his intent to proceed with his medal-removal campaign.
This decision will now be forwarded to the Minister for Defence for independent consideration, who will then recommend action to the Governor General, per the protocol established by the Letters Patent.
Last year, the Australian Special Air Services Association (ASASA) and the Commando (CDO), supported by the Returned and Services League (RSL), jointly expressed their stance that any administrative action against soldiers should be put on hold until all criminal charges are addressed and the facts are established according to due process. However, General Campbell seems to have disregarded this advice, sparking criticism from the veteran community.
While acknowledging the CDF's authority, veteran spokesperson and National ASASA Chairman, Mr Hamilton-Smith, pointed out that the CDF's handling of the war crime allegations was not optimal. According to Mr Hamilton-Smith, his actions implied guilt before the defendants had the chance to present their version of events, infringing on their right to due process.
Many veterans see the revocation of service awards as an unprecedented and degrading action that is unjust and displays poor leadership. They argue that soldiers volunteered and served under dangerous and resource-limited conditions, resulting in substantial physical, psychological, and moral costs. Many soldiers deployed multiple times, spending up to three and a half years in combat.
Controversially, General Campbell, the commander of these soldiers in 2011-12, was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for the same operations. The decision to withdraw awards from soldiers who served under him has been seen by some as hypocritical, leading to calls for him to relinquish his own medal to preserve his credibility.
The wellbeing of veterans and their families is of utmost concern, especially considering the current Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide. The move by General Campbell is feared to exacerbate mental health issues within the veterans' community and their families.
Commando Association representative, Steve Pilmore, expressed the disillusionment among soldiers and veterans who feel abandoned by the very system that sent them to war. He emphasised the need for evidence-backed punitive administrative actions and the guarantee of due process for those affected.
General Campbell's previous attempt to withdraw awards was rejected by Ministers Dutton and Hastie. Now, it is up to current Defence Ministers Marles, Conroy, Keogh, and Thistlethwaite to handle this issue and demonstrate their alignment with the community sentiment.
Critics argue that this move by the CDF tarnishes our ANZAC legacy and military leadership and poses a risk to soldiers' mental health, Defence's reputation, and recruitment efforts. They urge the CDF to focus on future objectives like improving recruitment and retention, implementing the Defence Strategic Review, and resolving defence procurement and capability issues.
RSL national president Greg Melick echoed the concerns regarding veterans' mental health and emphasised the need for command accountability. However, he asserted that allegations should be tested in court and the accused should be given the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Veterans organisations, ASASA, CDO, and RSL, said that they would continue their dialogue with other Ex-Service Organisations and the Australian community to determine their next steps, and they hope for a compassionate and legally respectful response from the government. They are asking the government to support veterans and their families by refusing General Campbell's recommendation.