Decorated Australian war veteran Ben Roberts-Smith has told a Sydney court that being awarded the Victoria Cross “put a target on my back” and led to his colleagues belittling him.
The 42-year-old began a second day in the witness box at his Federal Court defamation trial by recounting the 2010 battle of Tizak.
His evidence came 11 years to the day since Australian troops stormed the Taliban stronghold, killing 76 insurgents during fierce fighting that led to 11 military awards, including Mr Roberts-Smith’s Victoria Cross.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s barrister, Bruce McClintock SC, asked him what the award meant to him.
“People ask you that all the time and I would say that of course, I’m proud of it,” the veteran replied.
“I have such a respect for the institution of the Victoria Cross, but I’m nowhere near as proud of that as I am to be able to count myself amongst the number of men in that battle.
“Everybody fought with bravery, everybody fought with gallantry, and everyone at some point was fighting for their lives.”
But Mr Roberts-Smith said the award led to a change in attitude among his colleagues.
“For all of the good that it has brought me and enabled me to do, particularly, it is, unfortunately, the case, in my instance, it has also brought me a lot of misfortune and pain,” he told the court.
“It put a target on my back.”
Mr Roberts-Smith referred to becoming a “tall poppy” and the award giving others a chance to “belittle” him and “broaden their attacks” on him.
Mr Roberts-Smith said Australian soldiers spent 14 hours fighting in the village of Tizak, clearing a mosque and many houses of Taliban insurgents.
He said the battle was “extremely significant” in terms of disrupting the enemy’s network and their commanding control, saying it took the Taliban “years” to recover from the “dent”.
“That kind of battle has not happened, for Australian troops, since Vietnam,” Mr Roberts-Smith said.
Mr Roberts-Smith said he would often find “childish” things written on a noticeboard during 2012, designed to “undermine” him and “stir resentment”, including that he was “just trying to get another medal”.
“They would say things like that to try to incite some animosity,” he said.
Mr Roberts-Smith told the court one colleague, given the pseudonym Person 7, “just could not get over the fact I had a Victoria Cross”.
“That’s a problem for him,” he said, adding that he did not know the reason.
Defence documents for Nine Entertainment Co, the publisher of two of the newspapers, contain allegations Mr Roberts-Smith spoke specifically to Person 7 about his desires for a deployment in July 2012.
He is alleged to have said: “Before this trip is over I’m going to choke a bloke to death and watch the life drain out of his eyes”.
When the quote was put to him in court, Mr Roberts-Smith replied: “He’s got a flair for the dramatic”.
Mr Roberts-Smith said the language was not how he spoke.
“I never have, and I never will. To hear that, it’s a ridiculous thing to say.”
Mr Roberts-Smith is also accused in the media company’s court documents of bullying a colleague, referred to as Person 10, including by punching him in the face in 2012 after a “blue-on-blue” incident during a failed mission.
The veteran is suing The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times, along with three journalists, over a 2018 series of articles that reported allegations against Special Air Services Regiment soldiers in Afghanistan.
Mr Roberts-Smith argues he was defamed by several imputations, including that he “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement”, and has denied all wrongdoing.
The respondents are relying on a truth defence, and in their court documents have outlined details to six alleged unlawful killings in Afghanistan involving Mr Roberts-Smith.
Mr Roberts-Smith is also suing over reports he allegedly punched a woman, with whom he was having an affair, in a Canberra hotel room in 2018, and bullied SAS colleagues.