Medal elevates winner to highest pinnacle

By Derek Cheng

A Victoria Cross wearer gets a special privilege: a salute from anyone in military uniform.

"It's the pinnacle of gallantry awards," says Massey University associate professor of defence studies Glyn Harper.

"It takes precedent over all others. There is no higher honour. A wearer of the VC gets a salute from anybody in a military uniform, no matter what their rank; a general has to initiate a salute to a private wearing a VC as a sign of respect."

Professor Harper, who co-wrote a history of the VC in New Zealand in 2006, said the honour could be a life-changing experience for Corporal Willy Apiata.

"It has so much meaning, so much mana ... I can't think of anything comparable. The closest I can think of is becoming a Queen's Counsel, but the VC has more mana and prestige than anything else in the world.

"You can see that by the price people are willing to pay for them. The bronze is only worth a few dollars, but people want to buy these for millions."

The family of New Zealand's most decorated soldier, Captain Charles Upham, last year sold his VC and Bar for an undisclosed amount, estimated to be well in excess of $1 million.

Captain Upham, like other VC winners before him, was uncomfortable with the attention the honour brought.

"All VC winners, particularly New Zealand ones, have had a lot of public adulation and they get uncomfortable," Professor Harper said. "The people of Canterbury took up a collection for Upham because they knew he wanted a farm, but Upham didn't want monetary gain. He thought the VC was won by the whole company."

The criterion for a VC is to demonstrate outstanding gallantry in the face of the enemy, meaning it has to be in a combat situation. Many previous winners had been through the same scenario as Corporal Apiata, rescuing a comrade under heavy enemy fire.

Professor Harper said Corporal Apiata's heroism ranked alongside his VC peers.

He said plenty of worthy recommendations for the VC had been turned down, but every one awarded had been deserving.

In World War I, New Zealand commanders thought it was an officer's job to risk his life and demonstrate outstanding gallantry. "We were the only military force in the war in the Commonwealth that didn't award VCs to officers."

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