UPDATE: Christian Kerr and staff reporters | January 16, 2009
MARK Donaldson has become the first Australian soldier awarded the Victoria Cross in 40 years, for his "exceptional bravery" in service in Afghanistan.
Trooper Donaldson has been awarded the nation's highest military honour in a ceremony in Canberra this morning by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.
INTERACTIVE GALLERY: All the past Australian Victoria Cross winners
Trooper Donaldson was serving with the SAS in Oruzgan province in Afghanistan on September 2 last year when his unit was hit by an ambush, wounding nine Australians.
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for “most conspicuous acts of gallantry in a circumstance of great peril”, according to the citation.
“During a prolonged and effective enemy ambush on numerous occasions he deliberately drew the enemy’s fire in order to allow wounded soldiers to be moved to safety.
“As the battle raged around him he saw that a coalition force interpreter was lying motionless on exposed ground.
“With complete disregard for his own safety, on his initiative and alone, Trooper Donaldson ran back 80 metres across exposed ground to rescue the interpreter and carry him back to vehicle.
“Trooper Donaldson then rejoined his patrol and continued to engage the enemy while remaining exposed to heavy enemy fire.”
His citation said he "displayed exceptional courage in circumstances of great peril" and saved the life of the interpreter.
Kevin Rudd described the award as “truly historic”.
“Trooper Donaldson’s bravery will forever be engraved in Australian history,” the Prime Minister said in a statement.
“Generations of schoolchildren will now know of the story of Trooper Mark Donaldson.
“Trooper Donaldson’s courage and selflessness in the face of such unspeakable danger is not only a great tribute to him and his family – it epitomises the spirit of the Aussie Digger.
“The soldiers that he saved will be forever indebted to him. The nation will be forever indebted to him.”
Ms Bryce described Trooper Donaldson as “the finest example and inspiration”.
“We are here to dedicate your contribution, your unconditional surrender to duty and humanity, your abandonment of your own necessity so that others may be secure, your courage, generosity, compassion,” Ms Bryce said at the ceremony.
“Trooper Donaldson, VC, I salute you.”
Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston told the gathering Victoria Cross recipients were “at the very core of the ethos of which our military identity had been forged”.
“We in the modern Australian Defence Force strive to live up to the heroism and the values of the Victoria Cross recipients that have gone before us.”
In keeping with protocol Air Chief Marshal Houston then saluted Trooper Donaldson.
“As the highest ranking member of the defence force there has been no current serving member that I salute until now,” he said.
“Tradition holds that even the most senior officer will salute a Victoria Cross recipient as a mark of the utmost respect for their act of valour.”
An official Defence account of the action in December detailed the ambush and heroism of Australians, referring to Trooper Donaldson as Trooper F.
Major General Tim McOwan said a joint US, Australian and Afghan Humvee convoy was ambushed when returning to base after inflicting 13 Taliban kills a day earlier.
"In order to regain the initiative several SAS soldiers reacted to the ambush without regard to their own safety," Major General McOwan said.
"One soldier, whom I shall refer to as Trooper F, moved between positions of cover to engage the enemy, using anti-armour weapons as well as his personal weapon.
"The soldier deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire on several occasions in order to draw fire away from those soldiers who were already wounded in the initial heavy fire."
During an attempt to move the convoy away from the heavy enemy fire, a severely wounded Afghan interpreter fell from a truck. "Trooper F saw he had fallen and was lying to the rear in the open in ground being raked by machinegun fire," Major General McOwan said.
"Without prompting and without regard to his own safety, Trooper F went back to recover the wounded Afghan. He ran across about 80m of fire-swept and exposed ground, drawing intense and accurate machinegun fire from the entrenched enemy positions."
Trooper F lifted the wounded man on to his shoulders and carried him back to the vehicles before applying first aid and then returning to the firefight.
The Taliban ambush resulted in nine Australian soldiers being wounded, the most in a single action since the Vietnam War.
Ninety six Australians have been awarded the Imperial Victoria Cross.
Trooper Donaldson becomes the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for Australia, which replaced the imperial honour in 1991.
The first Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross was Captain Sir Neville Howse VC KCMG CB KStJ in 1900 during the Boer War. He also served in World War I and later as commonwealth minister for health, defence and repatriation.
The most recent Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross was Warrant Officer Keith Payne VC OAM in 1969 for gallantry during the Vietnam War. Under heavy enemy fire Warrant Officer Payne instigated a daring rescue of more than 40 men, many of them wounded, and led the party back to the battalion base.
Along with Mr Payne, the only other surviving Australian VC recipient is Victorian Edward Kenna, who won his award for service in New Guinea in 1945.