STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning ladies and gentlemen.
As you know from the Acting Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Hurley, yesterday, tragically, a young Australian soldier was killed in Afghanistan. This is a blow to our nation and a tragedy for his family.
Corporal Richard Atkinson is survived by his fiancée, his parents, and his brother. We mourn his loss, and our condolences, our thoughts, and our sympathy go to his family today.
He was a fine young soldier cut short at only 22 years of age. And as the Acting Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Hurley has said, his family will have the full support of the Defence Force and the Defence community.
This tragic loss, of course, is the twenty-second death that Australia has seen since our commitment to Afghanistan. At the same time we also saw, in this improvised explosive device incident yesterday, another Australian soldier wounded. That Australian soldier is in a satisfactory condition and is receiving medical treatment at Tarin Kot. That brings to four, the number of Australian soldiers wounded this year, and over 160 Australian soldiers wounded since our commitment to Afghanistan began.
The family of the wounded soldier have requested that details not be provided at this stage, but as well our thoughts are with him and his family.
The death overnight of Corporal Atkinson will also be a tragic reminder to the families of the 21 other former soldiers. And as they are tragically reminded of their own family loss, our thoughts are also with them.
Australia, of course, is committed to the International Security Assistance Force’s effort in Afghanistan because we are playing our role to stare down international terrorism, to do our bit to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a breeding ground for international terrorism.
And when we reflect upon the loss of a fine young Australian, his family and his friends and his mates in the Australian Defence Force and the Australian Army and from the Combat Engineer Regiment in Darwin know that his death, his loss, has been in advancing Australia’s national interests and in advancing the international community’s interests as it seeks to stare down international terrorism.
We also know that Afghanistan continues to be very difficult, and very dangerous. And on a day like today, which is a tough and difficult day for Australia generally, we have to steel ourselves for the prospect that further casualties, further fatalities will occur in the future.
This does not in any way weaken our resolve to continue to do what we believe is in Australia’s best interests, in Australia’s national interests, and in the international community’s interests as we make our contribution in Afghanistan.
Now I’m able to respond to your questions.
QUESTION: You said that you weren’t able to provide details because of a request from the family, but can you tell us where this happened?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it happened in Uruzgan Province in the Tangi Valley. It was Mentoring Task Force 2, the first fatality that we’ve seen from Mentoring Task Force 2 — and our first fatality for this year. This is the first fatality that we’ve had in Afghanistan since August last year, some five or six months.
The Acting Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Hurley, has indicated earlier today that in accordance with the usual processes, an inquiry will be held into the death to determine and establish all of the circumstances.
It was a foot patrol and encountered an improvised explosive device, or a roadside booby-trap and the full details of that will be disclosed and made public in due course, once that inquiry has been effected.
In terms of personal or individual circumstances, Corporal Atkinson has a fiancée, he has a brother and his parents survive him. His family, I’m told, family members variously reside here in Western Australia, or on the Eastern Seaboard. He, of course, was based in Darwin with the Combat Engineering Regiment.
The wounded soldier, the family has requested that no details be provided at this stage and so far as Corporal Atkinson’s family is concerned, other than the details that Lieutenant General Hurley has provided and I have provided, they’ve also requested that no further details be provided, at this stage, for privacy reasons.
QUESTION: Sorry, just to clarify, is that West Australia he was from?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, Corporal Atkinson was born in Tasmania. He has family in Western Australia and in other states of the country.
QUESTION: Where is the wounded soldier [indistinct]…
STEPHEN SMITH: The wounded soldier, I’m not in a position to indicate that detail, but the wounded soldier was also based in Darwin. Again, from the Combat Engineering Regiment. Again a member of Mentoring Task Force 2. He was seriously wounded, but is now in a satisfactory condition, receiving medical treatment at our medical facility in Tarin Kot.
QUESTION: [Inaudible question]
STEPHEN SMITH: No, he was seriously wounded as a result of the explosive device, but he is now in a satisfactory condition receiving medical treatment in Tarin Kot.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] Task Force, does that mean he was on patrol in back country?
STEPHEN SMITH: It was on a foot patrol. Like General Hurley, I’m not proposing to go into that detail. That will, obviously, be subject to the usual inquiry. But as a general proposition, our role, our mission in Afghanistan, in Uruzgan Province, is to mentor and train the Afghan National Army, to mentor and train the Kandaks that make up the Afghan National Army Fourth Brigade.
And so that training role, that mentoring role is very much the heart and soul of our mission in Uruzgan Province and we do that on an ongoing regular and continuing basis.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] see any light at the end of the tunnel in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I’ve indicated previously, I think we are making some progress in Afghanistan and I’ve never and don’t overstate that. It continues to be very difficult and this year, 2011, will be a very significant year particularly when what is described as the fighting season returns, when the weather moves from the cold winter months to spring and summer.
So this will be a very important year in terms of consolidating the security gains in Uruzgan Province and Afghanistan generally, particularly in the south. But it will continue to be difficult and dangerous.
I’ve also very strongly made the point publicly that we believe, as a result of the various reviews that the International Security Assistance Force and President Obama have effected, that we now have in place the correct military and political strategy, the correct allocation of resources internationally to achieve our objective in Afghanistan, which is to stare down international terrorism and to leave the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, the Afghan Security Forces, in a position to manage Afghanistan’s security issues and challenges themselves.
Okay. Thank you very much.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)