Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a NZME. News Service journalist based in Auckland.

NZ soldiers honoured for bravery under fire

Former NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team soldiers, from left, Corporal Matthew Ball, Corporal Albert Moore and Lance Corporal Allister Baker. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team soldiers, from left, Corporal Matthew Ball, Corporal Albert Moore and Lance Corporal Allister Baker. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Three New Zealand soldiers who tried desperately to save their mate in a fierce firefight in Afghanistan have become part of the family, the father of the fallen soldier says.

The soldiers were today honoured for their bravery during the battle against insurgents last August in which Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell was killed.

Corporal Albert Moore received the Gallantry Star, the second-highest New Zealand bravery award after the Victoria Cross, while Lance Corporal Allister Baker and Corporal Matthew Ball received the third-highest Gallantry Decoration.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team members were under Lieutenant O'Donnell's command when their patrol was ambushed near the town of Chartok in Bamiyan province on August 3 last year.

The lead patrol vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, killing Lieutenant O'Donnell and injuring Corporal Baker and Corporal Ball.

Corporal Baker and Corporal Ball braved heavy fire as they tried desperately to save their commander. Corporal Moore, who was in a following vehicle, was wounded by shrapnel during his efforts to rescue the men.

Lieutenant O'Donnell's father Mark said the awards brought back memories but he was proud to be at the ceremony at Government House in Wellington today.

"The honour for those three guys - they did it for themselves, but they also did it to try to save our son," he said.

"They're part of our family, so we wouldn't have missed it for the world."

Mr O'Donnell said he still got teary-eyed over the loss of his son, but he was more at peace after travelling to Afghanistan to see where the ambush took place.

"It must have been horrific, we can hardly imagine what it was like. I think all of them were extremely brave," he said.

His son had been joking around about medals with the three recipients just one week before the ambush, Mr O'Donnell said.

"Quite prophetic words, really."

The ambush was a harrowing 35-minute ordeal for Corporal Baker and Corporal Ball, who came under intense fire from shoulder-launched rockets and machine guns as they tried to get Lieutenant O'Donnell out of the burning vehicle.

Despite a broken ankle, Corporal Baker scrambled from the top of his gun turret to check on Lieutenant O'Donnell, who was slumped forward in the passenger seat.

He found Corporal Ball unconscious and roused him.

The pair then tried to rescue Lieutenant O'Donnell as the attack intensified, with rockets exploding against the driver's door.

As the fire spread throughout the vehicle, Corporal Ball suffered burns to his shoulders and hair.

The pair retreated only when ammunition in the vehicle began to explode, crawling 40m under enemy fire to shelter.

They were rescued 20 minutes later by Corporal Moore, who was in command of the patrol's rear vehicle.

Corporal Moore, was hit in the shoulder by rocket shrapnel but in the face of heavy enemy fire he ran 350m to rescue Corporal Baker and Corporal Ball.

Corporal Baker said he was proud to receive the award but wished the circumstances were different.

"It would be good if we had a reason not to have an award, because then Tim would be with us today," he said.

"He was a great leader and it's good to earn this for him."

He said Lieutenant O'Donnell's relatives were also "part of the family now".

"We've got to know them quite well, they're a great bunch of people. So we're just there for them if they need it as well."

For Corporal Moore, the award was not something he had strived for.

"It's all good going overseas, doing the job, but I would've rather come back with the company than got one of these."

Presenting the medals, Governor-General Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae said the awards were "bittersweet".

"Although you lost your commander and a mate on the battlefield, you each did everything in your power to protect one another," he said.

"The outcome could have been very different had it not been for the leadership and training put into action that day - both fundamentals that had been instilled in your patrol by Tim O'Donnell ... You have shown gallantry, comradeship and distinguished service above and beyond the call of duty."

- APNZ

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