Press Conference — Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan

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)

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