Willie Apiata: Victoria Cross recipient

By Michele Hewitson

Six months ago nobody knew who Corporal Willie Apiata was. This is the way it is supposed to be when you are a soldier in the SAS - because when you are in the SAS what you look like, what you do, any personal details about you, are secret.

The soldier's life did not change on a classified date in 2004, at 3.15am, in an Afghan war zone, the date of the incident which would lead to his life, his face, his work becoming known all over the country. On July 6 this year Apiata said of that morning: "I just saw my mate was injured and I needed to get him to safety and I put him up on my shoulder and carried him to safety and rejoined my mates and ... yeah, that's what happened."

His fellow soldier had been hit by shrapnel, had serious arterial bleeding and was lapsing in and out of consciousness. What Apiata didn't say then, will never say, is that in saving his mate he put himself in the direct firing line, that he put his own life in danger. And that is why he won the Victoria Cross which would change his life, for better or for worse.

That medal, the VC, the military's highest award for bravery, says all of the things that Apiata will never say. The VC says: For Valour. It means Corporal Willie Apiata is a national hero. And what national heroes have to do is, in many ways, just as heroic as the act that won Apiata his medal.

They have to be publicly acknowledged as heroes, and everyone wants to shake the hand of a hero.

So, on July 3, Apiata watched the news and knew that his life was about to change, irrevocably, for ever. Three days later the media arrived - a rare invitation issued - at SAS headquarters in Papakura. It was a very strange day for everyone. We had come to interview the hero and there was very little we could ask - what the SAS do is secret. But one aspect of their lives is not secret and that is that they don't go around boasting and talking about their work. "I was just doing my job," he said, over and over. He talked, because he had to, because the VC - he will say this - belongs to all of us.

Six months on, the reluctant hero is at SAS HQ, wearing what the military call "blacks", a little cap which says K9, and his wonderful bristling soldier's moustache. He has become famous; he has been publicly regaled, has performed countless ceremonial duties including a trip to Passchendaele for the 90th commemoration of that battle. "I've been very honoured," he says. Still, he would rather like a quieter life next year. "Hey, you can only hope, eh!"

It is hard work, anyone other than Apiata might say, being a hero. "I'm still trying to get to grips with that whole part of it."

It might, at times, you imagine, feel something like a burden, when you are a shy, sweet soldier. "Oh, you know, there are times it feels like that but these fullas here give me a hand when I need it."

They also had commissioned, secretly of course, a bronze of Apiata in full combat gear. It is in a glass case in the lobby of SAS HQ.

It is a wonderful thing; every boy's dream of the ultimate model soldier. This was a lovely surprise, but he doesn't hang about out there peering at it. "It's hard enough looking at myself on TV. I'm just trying to get used to that still."

When you are a hero people want to shake your hand. "People just want to say hello. They want to meet me, so I'm more than happy to shake their hands. There's hardly a day without somebody recognising me so I don't want to be rude or offend anyone."

What a strange twist his life has taken. He's the pin-up boy for the Defence Force.

"I keep seeing my picture in the Army News. But, you know, it's good for our soldiers. Every time I go round the camps and see our bros they're just proud as punch."

Out here, at SAS HQ, he's just one of the bros. The consequence of us having come to see him today, says his CO, will be a day of having the mickey taken out of him. Which doesn't mean to say they're not as proud as punch. As are we all, which is why Corporal Willie Apiata, a soldier, hell of a nice bloke, is one of our New Zealanders of the year.

- NZ Herald

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