A California-based Marine will receive the nation’s third-highest combat valor award Tuesday for his heroic actions in Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Timothy Williams earned the Silver Star for his role in repelling an enemy ambush on July 10, 2012. During an hours-long firefight, he endeavored to evacuate his severely wounded team leader and coordinated the rescue of a quick reaction force by fighting across more than a mile and a half of fire-swept terrain, according to his award citation.

While on a joint 15-man patrol with Afghan forces, Williams and the others — then assigned to Combat Support Adviser Team, Regimental Combat Team 6 — came under “intense and accurate” fire from at least 20 Taliban fighters. “Throughout the following 10 hour engagement, Staff Sergeant Williams took direct action to counter the ambush and repeatedly displayed superior leadership while directing his team under heavy small arms fire from fixed Taliban positions,” his citation reads.

After learning that his team leader was injured, “Williams sprinted across 60 meters of open terrain, exposing himself to accurate enemy fire, in order to aid and evacuate” him. Williams would again risk his life, taking enemy fire while carrying his wounded team leader across more than 300 meters to the medical evacuation site, his citation says.

Then, haven taken charge of the patrol, Williams organized an assault. He is credited with killing five Taliban while moving 1.6 miles to rendezvous with a quick reaction force that had gotten pinned down. Once the two units linked up, he and his men established a defensive position and beat back the attackers.

“Through his sound tactical and technical proficiencies, he led his element to effectively neutralize numerous Taliban positions and an estimated 20 Taliban fighters across 3,000 meters of arduous terrain,” Williams’ citation reads.

A ceremony is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at Camp Pendleton. Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, will present Williams with his Silver Star.

A California-based Marine will receive the nation’s third-highest combat valor award Tuesday for his heroic actions in Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Timothy Williams earned the Silver Star for his role in repelling an enemy ambush on July 10, 2012. During an hours-long firefight, he endeavored to evacuate his severely wounded team leader and coordinated the rescue of a quick reaction force by fighting across more than a mile and a half of fire-swept terrain, according to his award citation.

While on a joint 15-man patrol with Afghan forces, Williams and the others — then assigned to Combat Support Adviser Team, Regimental Combat Team 6 — came under “intense and accurate” fire from at least 20 Taliban fighters. “Throughout the following 10 hour engagement, Staff Sergeant Williams took direct action to counter the ambush and repeatedly displayed superior leadership while directing his team under heavy small arms fire from fixed Taliban positions,” his citation reads.

After learning that his team leader was injured, “Williams sprinted across 60 meters of open terrain, exposing himself to accurate enemy fire, in order to aid and evacuate” him. Williams would again risk his life, taking enemy fire while carrying his wounded team leader across more than 300 meters to the medical evacuation site, his citation says.

Then, haven taken charge of the patrol, Williams organized an assault. He is credited with killing five Taliban while moving 1.6 miles to rendezvous with a quick reaction force that had gotten pinned down. Once the two units linked up, he and his men established a defensive position and beat back the attackers.

“Through his sound tactical and technical proficiencies, he led his element to effectively neutralize numerous Taliban positions and an estimated 20 Taliban fighters across 3,000 meters of arduous terrain,” Williams’ citation reads.

A ceremony is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at Camp Pendleton. Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, will present Williams with his Silver Star.

In January 2011, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, 33, a member of Australia’s elite Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), was awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia, the nation’s highest military honour, for an act of extraordinary bravery under fire in Afghanistan on June 11, 2010.

When Ben and his unit were choppered into the village of Tizak in Kandahar province by the US 101st Airborne Division — four Black Hawks for the men and two Apache gunships for support — the mission was to capture or kill a senior Taliban commander. What they didn’t know was that their target had come to meet 10 other senior commanders and that the commanders were protected by more than 100 battle-hardened and well-armed militia.

Ben’s troop soon found themselves in a perilous position: heavily outnumbered and coming under withering fire from three elevated, fortified machine-gun emplacements. To save comrades pinned down by the lethal assault, Ben, who with his troop had worked his way to a position just 40 metres from the machine guns, first exposed his own position to lift the weight of fire, then stormed the emplacements, killing those at the trigger. His selfless action in single-handedly silencing the guns allowed the patrol to break into the enemy position, take the initiative and launch further assaults against the Taliban, eventually clearing the village of insurgents. He modestly describes the exhausting eight-hour engagement as “a long day”.

For his courage that day, Ben was awarded the Victoria Cross, accepting the honour from the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, at a special ceremony in Perth.

It was not the first time a medal for bravery had been pinned to his chest. In 2006, he received the Medal for Gallantry as a Lance-Corporal while on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. In a television interview in February, he said he believed freedom and family were worth fighting for — and that he would gladly lay down his life for them. “I know that what we’re doing is stemming the flow of terrorism into this country,” he said.

Ben grew up in Perth in a family with a military heritage. His father is Major General Len William Roberts-Smith, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia and recently retired as the head of the Corruption and Crime Commission of WA. Major General Roberts-Smith has served as a lawyer in the ADF for more than 40 years, including as the organisation’s Judge Advocate General. (Ben’s younger brother, Sam, 27, chose a career as a performer and is an acclaimed baritone contracted to Opera Australia in Sydney.)

Ben joined the Army at 17, and the elite SASR in 2003 after passing the Regiment’s arduous 20-day selection course known as the Cadre. In his nine years with the Regiment, he has served overseas many times: twice in East Timor, once in Fiji and Iraq, and five times in Afghanistan.

Ben is currently on a “domestic cycle” of duty — a time for retraining, learning new skills and an opportunity to spend more time with wife Emma and 18-month-old twins Eve and Elizabeth. In the past year, he’s ably shouldered the different set of duties and responsibilities that being awarded the VC has brought: the handshaking, the wreath-laying, the meeting of monarchs, the TV interviews. He also hopes, via his increasing profile, to help recruit men to the SASR, the unit of which he’s so proud. Truth be told, Ben just wants to get back to his day job of being a soldier, back with the boys, and looks forward to his next tour of duty to Afghanistan, his sixth.

Though physically imposing — a giant 2.02m tall, tattooed and in superb physical shape — Ben is rather the reluctant hero: unfailingly polite, modest and self-effacing. He’s a nice bloke. In this interview, Ben describes how his workouts are “built for battle” — tailored and highly effective combinations of bodyweight exercises, weights and running that simulate the demands of the combat conditions in which he might find himself. If you’d like to train like a VC recipient does, try the “Warrior Workout” Ben put together for us. Click here for the Ben Roberts-Smith Warrior Workout.

THE valley was descending into madness.

Machinegun fire was raking the air above them. Radios were crackling, men yelling above the static and gunfire.

The Australian soldiers, about 20 of them with another 20 Afghan army, were bunkered down. Sergeant Sean Lanigan was at the front of the patrol with Private Paul Langer in what his Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Jennings, would later call a knife fight.

In other words, they were so close they may as well have been using knives, not machineguns.

"We were getting hit from a couple of positions," Sgt Lanigan said. "From thick marijuana crops."

Corn and wheat also grew. All taller than a man, it made it perfect for evil men to hide in.
This was on the morning of August 24, 2010, the day Lance-Corporal Jared MacKinney would be shot dead. And if not for the actions of another, Corporal Dan Keighran, there might have been many more.

Cpl Keighran was awarded the Victoria Cross last week for what happened this day, just the third VC winner since fighting began in Afghanistan.

The battle is more than two years gone now, but this week Cpl Keighran, with Lt Col Jennings, Sgt Lanigan, Corporal Lukas Woolley and Sapper Joel Toms, recalled what happened that day. He wouldn’t do it without them.

The air was full of machinegun fire and shouts, Afghani soldiers missing and then found, gunfire coming from crops you cannot see into, an enemy of unknown size, but of considerable firepower.

The Afghani insurgents that planned the ambush had done a wonderful job. The Australians were vulnerable, on the low side with only open ground behind them, or a high, naked hill. It was so bare any attempt at gaining higher ground was not worth considering.

"Get some eyes on the target," came the radio call.

At this, Sgt Lanigan saw Cpl Keighran running up the hill. In truth, he was already going before the instructions came.

"Oh shit!" Sgt Lanigan thought. Spr Toms saw him go, too. "Oh no!" he thought.

Cpl Keighran went up the hill with Private Sean Parker and two Afghanis.

He got up the hill so fast he went too far. “I knew I went too far because I nearly got shot in the first couple of seconds,” he said.

The bullets came in hard, punching the ground. “The closer it gets the crisper it sounds. It’s like a crack,” he said. Cpl Woolley added, “Like a stockwhip.”

Cpl Keighran was in a bad spot. There wasn’t enough cover. He was too exposed. The cracks were crisp. “But I knew I had to be there, essentially to support my mates in the trench,” he said.

Such environments are not the place for hard luck stories. Actions here are always final, and sometimes fatal.

But the Australians were under siege and, with the moment at hand, a man with a bad haircut and an intelligent eye, who now commits his fulltime work to time in the mines, was about to do something extraordinary.

Cpl Woolley sent about half a dozen Afghans to help Cpl Keighran. They carried rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machineguns, and Cpl Keighran began positioning them 10-15m apart, attracting fire every time he moved to the next.

From there he called positions in and, on a ridge about 1.5km west, four light-armoured trucks carrying a .50 calibre machinegun, two 25mm Bushmaster chain guns, a 7.62mm machinegun and an 84mm recoilless rifle fired.

For Cpl Keighran the relief was brief. Realising he was calling in positions, the insurgents turned their guns on the exposed hillside.

"That’s when Dan and Sean Parker started really getting a massive amount of fire from long range," Sgt Lanigan said.

"It was perfect machinegun range. That’s when we realised there was a lot of fire going above our heads hitting Dan and Sean."

The insurgents brought reinforcements. Fire started coming from farther away.

When the reinforcements arrived Cpl Keighran knew exactly where they needed to be, but they had to be told.

"We need to get fire support," Cpl Keighran thought, to engage the targets further out. "I made the decision at this point to come off this hill," he said.

More machinegun fire rained down as he descended.

He ran in some places, crawled in others. Puffs of dirt spat up around him.

He grabbed Captain Brendan Perkins: “We’re getting engaged further out than what’s still going on close quarter. We need to get rounds on these boys to help us out.”

Back up the hill they went, crawling all the way. On top, the machinegun fire picked up, so heavily they couldn’t stick their heads up to identify enemy positions.

Then, if he hadn’t already by now, Cpl Keighran did something that would earn his Victoria Cross.

"Put down 50 rounds rapid fire, I’m gonna stand up," he said. "I’m gonna draw fire."

Most of us would think this is crazy. For most of us it would be. But Cpl Keighran is uncommon.

"There’s a point where you make a decision and there’s a point beyond that," Cpl Woolley said, "and I watched him go beyond that a couple of times." By example, each time he watched Cpl Keighran go through his processes before he acted. This was no ill-considered action.

"Essentially," Keighran said, he knew he had to "expose myself on top of this hill. I made the call to run across it."

Amid all that gunfire, Cpl Keighran ran 20-30m to draw fire. He did this, across a naked ridge, the bullets coming in crisp and clear.

Then he did it again.

The third time he ran even further. “I went way too far,” he said.

He ran 45-50m, bullets zinging around him.

"The second time was pushing it, the third time - I’m lucky, to say the least."

Spotting muzzle fire, they identified three enemy positions that were soon taken out, turning the battle.

Cpl Woolley saw enough to be alarmed and jump on the radio. “Dan, jump on Channel 2,” he said. “What do you need?” said Cpl Keighran.

"You’re taking rounds real close," he said. "Watch out."

"Yeah," Cpl Keighran said. "No dramas."

Soon after, he was running again. Lance-Cpl MacKinney had just been shot.

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