I was only doing my job, says VC hero

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The Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association is saluting New Zealand's latest recipient of the Victoria Cross.

RSA president John Campbell said SAS corporal Bill Apiata's actions were courageous and he deserved the recognition he had received.

"His courageous actions, with total disregard for his own safety, saved the life of his comrade and should be saluted by all New Zealanders," Mr Campbell said.

"He deservedly joins the ranks of our heroes who have gone before him."

Corporal Apiata, the first New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross since the Second World War, has said he was only doing his job.

He is to receive the elite award after carrying an injured colleague through enemy fire in Afghanistan.

A clearly overwhelmed Corporal Apiata said he was still trying to deal with the enormity of having received such a prestigious honour.

"I was only doing my job and looking after my mates," Corporal Apiata told a media conference in Wellington this afternoon.

"It means a lot to me, to my family and the unit itself."

Corporal Apiata said he often sees the man whose life he saved.

"Whenever I see him we catch up and have a beer. We're good mates," Corporal Apiata said.

When asked if he saw himself as a role model, he said: "I see myself as Willy Apiata. I'm just an ordinary person."

Prime Minister Helen Clark said today: "Corporal Apiata carried a severely wounded fellow soldier across open ground while coming under intense attack. He did this despite the extreme danger to himself."

He becomes the 22nd member of New Zealand defence forces to win a Victoria Cross, the first to receive once since WW2, and the first winner of the new Victoria Cross for New Zealand, which was instituted in 1999.

In 2004 Lance Corporal Apiata was part of an NZ SAS patrol in Afghanistan.

The troops had put up a defensive formation for the night when they were attacked by a group of around 20 enemy fighters. Grenades destroyed one of the troops' vehicles and immobilised another.

This was then followed by fire from machine guns and further grenade attacks.

The initial attack was aimed at the vehicle where Lance Corporal Apiata was stationed, and he was blown off the bonnet by the impact of the grenade. He was not physically injured but another soldier - named only as Corporal D - was in a serious condition.

The soldiers were under constant fire from the enemy and, as they were exposed by the fire from the vehicle, they immediately tried to take cover.

Corporal D's injuries were life threatening, and the other two soldiers began to apply first aid.

Apiata took control of the situation, as D was rapidly deteriorating. However, he was in a very exposed position and the enemy fire was becoming increasingly intense.

D was suffering from arterial bleeding and so Apiata came to the conclusion that he needed urgent medical attention or he would die.

So without considering abandoning his fellow soldier to save himself Apiata decided to carry D to the safer position where the rest of their troops were stationed and where D could get proper medical attention. Apiata then carried D seventy meters through exposed ground and enemy fire - and miraculously neither man was hit.

Apiata then resumed the fight.

Medical evaluation revealed that D would have probably died from blood loss had it not been for Apiata's bravery in getting him the proper medical attention. D is now back on active duty.

Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae, said Corporal Apiata was a humble man who when praised for his bravery had said: "I was only doing my job, boss."

Corporal Apiata was born in the Waikato in 1972 and grew up in Northland and the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

He joined the New Zealand Army as a territorial soldier in 1989. From July 2000 to April 2001, he served in East Timor as part of the United Nations operated there.

He joined the regular army force in April 2001.

In 1996 he had applied for SAS selection but was not successful, however he reapplied and passed in 2001, training with the SAS in 2002.

He becomes one of only 13 living recipients of the Victoria Cross -- the only New Zealander in that group.

Cpl Apiata, 35, affiliates to the Nga Puhi tribe through his father but also feels a strong affiliation to Whanau-a-Apanui, which is also the iwi of his partner.

Another three, unnamed, members of the SAS received other awards. Details were not being released of their bravery "for operational security reasons", the Defence Force said.

"Captain C" and "Corporal B" will receive New Zealand's second highest military honour, the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration (NZGD).

"Corporal R" will receive New Zealand's third highest military honour, the New Zealand Gallantry Medal (NZGM)

The Defence Force said: "All four recipients have shown incredible strength of character in adverse conditions and embody the ethos and values of the New Zealand Defence Force."


The Victoria Cross

The medal dates back to 1856, following the Crimean War.

Queen Victoria decided a medal was needed to reward soldiers of all rank who had an "act of valour".

It was first made from metal melted down from captured Russian guns after the Crimean War.

Prior to the Victoria Cross, the Order of Bath was the highest honour but it was only awarded to high ranking soldiers.

According to the Victoria Cross website, during the first presentation of the medals at Hyde Park in 1857, Queen Victoria presented the medals herself on horseback.

While presenting Commander Henry Raby with his medal, she stabbed the pin into his chest. The commander stood unflinching with the medal piercing his flesh.

The Victoria Cross is the Commonwealth's highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy and is worn before all other medals.

The cross has been awarded to New Zealand servicemen in both world wars. It was also awarded to a New Zealand militiaman and to 14 Royal Navy and Imperial Army troops during the New Zealand Wars.

A new Victoria Cross for New Zealand was instituted in 1999.

- NZHERALD STAFF

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