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Peter Bills: Reluctant hero is a man of two worlds

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Willie Apiata found the inevitable public exposure after winning the Victoria Cross intimidating. Photo / NZPA
Willie Apiata found the inevitable public exposure after winning the Victoria Cross intimidating. Photo / NZPA

He calls his great award a burden, hopefully to be shared by others.

But I'm not sure anyone else can understand the world Willie Apiata inhabits or the act of extraordinary bravery that earned him the Victoria Cross.

Sure, we can listen to his tales, stories so graphic we think we can imagine the hardships and deprivation, what it's like when someone is firing an AK-47 automatic rifle, trying to kill you. But we can't. We'd have no more idea what all that entails than the man in the moon.

He sits before me beside his young son, amiable, relaxed, almost shy and inoffensive. Yet this is a man who operates in the toughest of environments. Now it is true that, in any situation, the SAS has a series of graduated responses and the vast majority of all incidents are resolved without death or injury.

But, as for his son, at whom he gazes benevolently while we speak, he offers a different view of harsh military matters. He discovered his partner was pregnant on the same Friday he won his elite SAS membership. A dilemma? Not in this harsh, unforgiving, unsentimental world.

"I got badged on the Friday and on the Monday I was told I was leaving. I was a young trooper, so I was excited to go. I was just looking for the adventure, it didn't matter."

And when his son came into the world, what did he think? Extracting confessions from SAS men is not straightforward. They are trained to say nothing, to express no emotions. So his response surprised me.

"Once he came into the world it did change it." In what way? "You know what our business is about. You may go away and never come home. And then you'll leave a fatherless child.

"That's a tough hurdle to climb mentally. We recently buried two of our boys, but you have to remember what you wear on your head and why you're here. That can be difficult at times."

The war business? He confesses he sees no end to wars and mankind killing fellow human beings.

"You just look back through history. Conflict is a thing we do as humans. That disappoints me because of our children, the next generation. That's what we're raising our children in the world for. This is the world they're going to live in."

Is that not a matter of enormous concern, even to a man of the military like Apiata? The 39-year-old nods, a frown writ large upon his face.

"My biggest fear is, I don't want him to be a soldier, to be like this. You have to put that memory of children aside so you can go out and focus on the job because you need to be clear. If you're not clear in your mind, you're a liability and a weakness in the crew. You can't be that.

"I know it's taken its toll on my life. But I thank the Almighty for giving me as much luck as he did, for me still sitting here. For at the end of the day, it comes down to luck."

I haven't the slightest clue what Apiata's world means. It's pointless even trying to speculate - we who haven't been there cannot know. But I try a different approach to elicit the private thoughts of this remarkable, self-effacing man.

In World War II, the distinguished Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote a brilliant book on the desert war entitled African Trilogy. In it, he described the stirring sight of the New Zealand Division emerging from the desert after an exercise.

"They rolled by with their tanks and their guns and armoured cars, the finest troops of their kind in the world, the outflanking experts, the men who had fought the Germans in the desert for two years, the victors of half a dozen pitched battles.

"They were too gaunt and lean to be handsome, too hard and sinewy to be graceful, too youthful and physical to be complete. But if ever you wished to see the most resilient and practised fighter of the Anglo-Saxon armies this was he."

Apiata listened and nodded. "I associate that with the early stages of my first few tours. The long duration out on patrol and when you do come back, that's exactly how you look.

"You stink, like four weeks without a bath because you conserve all your water. When you come back, well, that's exactly as you have described it. The people are bearded, they are exhausted but they haven't switched off until they're in the safe confines."

He says, with hindsight, he was always destined to be a soldier; it was how he felt as he grew up. "I look back now and if I wasn't being taught things by other people, the natural things I did in my life were channelling me in this way. Slowly, the sculpture started being formed and now I am here."

At school, his only interests were farming, hunting and walking the dogs. The army couldn't have been further from his thoughts. But, he adds with a touch of melancholy, through things that happened in his life when he was young and the situations that occurred back then, he was forced to leave that life.

Then, the army came along. "There's all walks of life in this place. That's what makes the team; everyone is different."

What qualities does SAS membership bring to an individual? "To be able to discipline yourself without anyone else doing it for you. I wasn't a naturally disciplined person, I liked breaking the rules, especially when I could get away with it. But you have to be a team player here."

The citation for his Victoria Cross speaks of his extraordinary courage and fortitude under enemy fire somewhere in Afghanistan. He takes me through the experience, repeating it as it occurred. When he was told, some time later, that he'd won the VC for his actions, he had just a single thought in his head.

"The first thing I asked was, 'Are you going to out me?"'

Secrecy, of course, is the watchword of the service. He confessed: "I wanted them to hand me the medal in an office one morning and then I'd get on with my job. No one would ever know. But they said that wasn't possible, they couldn't do it."

And he's paid a high price for that "outing". "My life today is nowhere near what it was. It changed forever that day."

A celebrity? Not much scares the hell out of SAS men but flourish that word in front of Apiata and he takes on a cowering manner. "I shudder when I hear words like that used; I'm very uncomfortable with it. I know I have to learn to grow with it otherwise I would go and hide in the bush and never come back.

"But regardless of what I think about the medal and what I did, the effect it's had on the people of New Zealand outweighs what I feel. They tell me it's lifted our country, changed people's lives I haven't even met."

But it has changed his life and, to be frank, he has struggled to handle the high tide of publicity and fame. He says he's trying to get better at dealing with people, but he still finds rubbing shoulders with a lot of important people intimidating.

"I've always been a bit of a shy person. I've met a few All Blacks and they said they were bloody nervous to meet me. But if only they'd known, I was the one who was really nervous.

"These guys want to be famous, they want to be on the TV and signing autographs. But I just want to be a soldier. I wanted to be who I was. I didn't want any of that fame, fortune, publicity or celebrity status."

His son has spent most of the interview thumbing through a military book, poring over the implements of war. Remember, there is no one as intuitive as a youngster.

Apiata describes to me in intricate detail the act which won him the VC. But it's his son who asks the next question - "Did you think you were going to die?"

"At some stages, yes," was his father's quiet, calm reply.

It somehow epitomised this dignified, humble man.

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