‘You created the beast’: Veteran’s stark message to Defence
A decorated Special Forces soldier who deployed to Afghanistan seven times says the Australian Defence Force "created the beast'' by sending operators out to kill "every other day or night.''
Wes H Hennessey CSM, 48, from Toowoomba in Queensland, said he felt compelled to defend the Special Forces community in the wake of the Brereton report, which referred 19 current and former soldiers to police for investigation over war crimes including murder.
The soldier, who uses his former protected identity initial H, said he was not investigated by the Brereton inquiry.
He said he did not condone the actions alleged in the report, including "bloodings'', where rookie solders were ordered by their superiors to execute prisoners for their first kill.
He said those found to have committed war crimes "should be held accountable, 100 per cent.''
But he said the entire Special Forces community had been smeared by the alleged actions of a few, and that senior leadership within the ADF - who trained the Special Forces soldiers and encouraged the "can-do'' attitudes of its top operators - were not being held accountable.
"To me, they created the beast,'' he said.
"They needed the capacity, they needed us to be the strategic tool for them. They referred to us as the scalpel and sometimes the sledgehammer.''
H, a former 2nd Commando Regiment Warrant Officer who joined the military at 17 and spent 18 years in the Special Forces, was deployed in Afghanistan seven times, including two back-to-back deployments totalling 13 months in 2013-2014.
He said he was mentally fatigued by the end and there had been numerous operations in which "we were out killing people every other day or night.''
H, who left the Army in 2014, decided to step out of the shadows and join the national debate when he became infuriated by the decision of Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell to accept the recommendation of Assistant Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, Justice Paul Brereton, to recommend the revocation of the Meritorious Unit Citation.
The citation has been awarded to around 3000 people who served in the Special Operations Task Group during Operation Slipper in Afghanistan between 2007-2013.
Gen. Campbell has since back-pedalled and said no decision had been made, following public concerns expressed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
H is also campaigning for improvements to mental health services available to veterans' and their families, and says he wants to ensure ADF leadership figures were also held accountable, where appropriate.
He said the decision to publicly release the report had opened the door for disinformation campaigns such as the one launched by China this week, where a senior diplomat tweeted a distasteful faked image of an Australian soldier about to cut the throat of a terrified Afghani child.
"What you (Gen. Campbell) have done, and how you have done it has affected every Australian,'' he said.
"This should have remained classified. "It's - allegedly - a very small group. Fix the small group.''
He questioned how Justice Brereton and Gen. Campbell could so categorically state that the incidents that occurred were not in the "heat of battle'' or "fog of war''.
"How does he psychologically assess the guys' state of mind on the ground?'' he asked.
"I know how I was. I was cooked. But if you'd asked me at the time you would have got me saying 'I'm fine, good to go, no problem'.
"Part of our coping mechanism to protect ourselves is compartmentalising. When you're in the vortex, you're in the vortex. It's not a job, it's a lifestyle and when you're in it, you have to be focused on it 100 per cent every single minute.''
H wears his life on his sleeve.
His tattoos are a deeply-personal record of an extraordinary life, inked into his skin. On his right arm, the Roman numerals for the number of comrades he lost. He has several more to add.
The Latin words 'foras admonitio' - meaning 'without warning'. The motto of 2nd Commando Regiment. The first few notes of the Last Post, the lament for soldiers lost.
Blood-red stars, for the sky in Afghanistan that he would lie under at night and talk to. The good-luck symbol of the bluebird. The ace of spades - the death card. A dice, for every time his unit rolled the dice on an operation.
The Fairbairn Sykes Commando knife. And the name of his friend and comrade, Sergeant Brett Woods, killed by an improved explosive device in Helmand Province in May 2011.
On his knuckles, WNQ. Winners never quit. He would look at those tattoos on his darkest days back in Australia, then look in the mirror, forcing himself to keep fighting and never give up.
H was 16 and working on a sheep farm near Longreach when he lodged his papers to join the Australian Defence Force.
In 1990, at 17, he was accepted, and began a military career that saw him posted to Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, Somalia and Solomon Islands.
"I always wanted to join the army. Ever since I was young, I wanted to join the military,'' he said.
In 1998 he joined the Commandos at Holsworthy and embarked on a Special Forces career that ultimately saw him awarded for Exceptionally Valorous Achievement as an Assault Team member in 2006, Exceptionally Meritorious Achievement whilst deployed in 2008 and Conspicuous Service in the 2nd Commando Regiment over an extended period of time in 2009.
He does not pretend he was perfect. He was investigated over a prisoner death some years ago. No action was taken. He was charged with disobedience of a general order after unauthorised ammunition was found in his locker back in Australia. He has upset ADF leadership several times, including as recently as a few months ago, when he took part in the Life on the Line podcast for veterans, and, identified only as H, revealed supervision had been so lacking in Afghanistan he was able to freelance with other western allied forces. His separation from the ADF in 2014 was acrimonious - he was in a bad head space, exhausted, and upset at the munitions charge (to which he pleaded guilty).
The seemingly-endless cycle of rotations took its toll. He said he had become addicted to combat.
"I recognise now I should not have deployed. It was my fault. The only place I wanted to be in the world was in Afghanistan, in combat.
"Now, the CDF, how do you know what was going on in our minds when we didn't know? We were cooked.
"I must have done 100 psychologist interviews. I can outsmart them, we all can. We know what to say and what boxes to tick.''
By 2014, H was done. He put in his discharge papers. He struggled to reintegrate and made bad choices. He drove his car like a maniac. He looked for risk. There were addictions. His marriage to the mother of his children broke down. He worked in the private sector but couldn't settle down.
In 2019, his stock horse Tobi almost did what the Taliban couldn't in Afghanistan. She kicked him off while he was working some cattle at a yard outside Toowoomba. His 100kg frame landed heavily, and he broke seven ribs. As his lungs filled with blood, he was rushed by helicopter to Brisbane where he spent two weeks in ICU before beginning a long, slow recovery.
On his left hand, a new tattoo depicts a compass, and the word Life. He looks at it every day to remind himself of his moral compass, and the need to make good choices as he rebuilds his civilian life.
Justice Brereton found a total of 39 incidents where civilians or prisoners had been unlawfully killed, and a further two cruelly treated, and identified 25 current and former Special Forces operators as "principals or accessories.'' Twenty-three incidents and 19 individuals have been referred to police for investigation.
H said he was not defending any individual. "I am not defending any of them. I am defending the Special Forces community, the meritorious and valorous work we have done. Members of the Special Operations Task Group who went there over 10 years and did thousands and thousands of operation without error.
"(But) mistakes happen, we are human and it is war. We are being over-judged, from a safe distance.''
· The Defence all-hours Support Line is a confidential telephone and online service for ADF members and their families 1800 628 036
· Open Arms provides 24-hour free and confidential counselling and support for current and former ADF members and their families 1800 011 046, or through SafeZone on 1800 142 072.
Crisis support from Lifeline is available on 13 11 14
Originally published as 'You created the beast': Veteran's stark message to Defence