This is the sixth post of this section and I’m so excited! First of all, I have never been in the military but I respect anyone who is active duty or is separated military. I have always been awed by regular military; you know those gun-hoe GI Joe types who rush into a room filled with hostiles and blow the ever living crap out of everything? Movies like Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), Commando (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Navy SEALS (Charlie Sheen), Delta Force (Chuck Norris) and Heatbreak Ridge (Clint Eastwood) come to mind.
It was only during recent years that I have actually started reading books about Special Forces and have personally met members of some of America’s elite Special Forces units that I have gained an absolute amazing respect for these men. I say “men” because, as of yet in America, women are not allowed to enter into a Special Forces unit. See my post: “Women in the Military: Should GI Jane Become a Reality?” to get a better picture of what I mean.
In the ensuing posts, I will give a profile of Special Forces groups throughout the world, describe their history and list a bunch of mind-blowing stuff they’ve done.
If you don’t know yet, Special Forces and Special Operations Forces are military components who are specially trained, drilled and educated to carry out un-traditional operations 1. Special Forces began in the early part of the 1900s, with a large expansion during WWII. This was a time when “every major army involved in the fighting” fashioned elite units who were loyal to special operations behind enemy lines.
Varying by country, Special Forces may execute some of these wicked, bad-to-the-bone ops: airborne missions, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, foreign interior resistance, clandestine operations, targeted warfare, hostage recovery, high-value targets/man-hunting, surveillance/reconnaissance missions, mobility ops and untraditional combat.
Be ready to be educated and blown away by what you’re about to read…
New Zealand is an island nation in the southwest Pacific located just southeast of Australia. It is comprised mainly of the north and south islands as well as 600 lesser islands. Because of its absolute seclusion from the rest of the world, it was one of the most recent areas to be settled by humans. It was first discovered by the Māori tribes around 1000 AD. The first Europeans to set foot there were the Dutch in the 1600s. They named it “New Sealand” or in their language – “New Zealand”.
From the country’s pristine jagged mountain peaks to its breathtaking glaciers, scenic fjords, open plains, picturesque hot springs, vivid green hillsides, jungle-like forests, volcanic highlands and continuous shorelines with exquisite beaches, they have it all. With a population of almost four and a half million people from European, Māori and Pacific Islander descent, the two main islands are far from overpopulated. They practice things like the hongi (a traditional greeting where close friends touch forehead to forehead and nose to nose instead of a hug) and the haka (a traditional war cry, war dance or challenge). If you’re up for it, you can go snowboarding and surfing all in the same day! The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit were all filmed there and the islands are home to many famous people like Russell Crowe, Lucy Lawless (Xena), Manu Bennett, Sam Neill, Cliff Curtis, Karl Urban, Zoe Bell, Sir Peter Jackson, Bill Gallagher (developer of the electric fence) and Jenny Bornholdt (a poet). New Zealanders are often called “kiwis” which refers to the distinct fruit that is native to the land. Although these beautiful lands offer some of the greatest Hollywood actors and the best scenes for movies, they also are home to one of the most lethal and cunning special forces groups – the NZSAS.
Imagine 4-5 highly trained special operators with cammo faces lying in wait under the foliage in an undisclosed jungle. Rain constantly pelts their bodies, yet they are unmoved. The next day the temperature reaches over 100 degrees with mosquitos buzzing around their heads and biting every inch of their exposed skin. They sit there for up to 5 days not moving a muscle, not being able to cook their food but eating dried up rations. Ten feet away from them sits their enemy who is totally oblivious they are being watched. Once given the go-ahead, one operator moves to his unsuspecting victim. In an instant, the target’s spinal cord is severed from the soundless swipe of a knife. Then silenced rifles pop off and take care of the rest. With the mission complete, these deadly warriors remain in position to await further instruction from command. These lethal commandos are known as the New Zealand Special Air Service or the NZSAS (pronounced en-zed SAS).
They accept the challenge and they make it happen regardless of the odds. They find a solution. The word can’t isn’t in their vocabulary. They know what they must do and they are headstrong to complete their missions. They are determined, extra alert and they think outside the box. They are used in the worst possible scenarios when deadly force might be necessary. World class standards and tremendous versatility is what makes a New Zealand SAS operator 2.
The keys to success generally have to do with stealth, surprise and maneuvering. Whether it is done in an urban or a rural environment, their strategy is the same. They get the jump on the opponent before they become aware 2.
The New Zealand Special Air Service was founded on July 7, 1955 and, unlike many other countries who have several different types of special forces that go on specific special missions, the NZSAS is the only special forces group in New Zealand. They are responsible for long-range reconnaissance, direct action, counter terrorism and disposal of nuclear weapons 3.
Unlike most conventional forces, NZSAS will see action early and often in their operational lives. Their operational tempo has been very high since the 1990s where they have been deployed on operations worldwide and closer to home 2.
New Zealand is regarded as having one of the world’s best special forces – having fought in many major conflicts for over half a century, the NZSAS is famous for evading and tracking the enemy. Their roles are as peace keepers, information gatherers and fighters in the international war on terror 2.
“They will go in and if the task is possible to undertake, they will do it and they will achieve the objectives,” stated Phil Goff, New Zealand Minister of Defense 1.
The NZSAS is an elite, tier 1 special forces group similar to the US Army Delta Force.
Yet despite the ability to operate in any terrain, there is almost nothing known about the NZSAS. The unit has a strict no publicity policy, which they have rigorously upheld since they were conceived 1.
“We need to maintain a level of secrecy so that we don’t compromise tasks that are currently underway or potentially future tasks,” mentioned an NZSAS commanding officer 1.
It’s role in the global war on terror has taken the unit from the shadows and reluctantly placed it in the spotlight. However, much about this unit’s activities will remain forever secret 1. They must maintain a high degree of readiness and a high standard of training because given the climate they are in now, they never know when crisis will hit and they will be called into action 2.
As NZSAS soldiers, they must master a variety of advanced skills. In the world of special forces, New Zealand’s SAS ranks among the best. In a fraction of a second, they must know how to react because the outcome could mean life and death for them and their fellow troops. Like many international special forces, they have the ability to infiltrate anywhere in the world by land, sea and air. They are also long-range intel gatherers. They are soldiers who can take direct action against an enemy. They are also known for the anti-terrorism/counter terrorism skills known by the unit as “black rock”. They are jacks of all trades to a certain degree. They need to be able to take those skills and apply them wherever a given situation comes up. Some situations in the past couple of years have arrived unexpected and by surprise 2.
“NZSAS operators have to have skills that span a range of environments and a range of different scenarios. I think that they have those competencies and I think that they can bring their skills to bear on a range of different situations where New Zealand might be called upon to protect its own interests and the interests of the international community,” said Phil Goff, New Zealand Minister of Defense 2.
NZSAS received a presidential citation for working alongside American special forces in Afghanistan. If you walk into any bar in Ft. Benning, GA where the US Army special forces command is located and you throw down your coin as a New Zealand SAS member, you will be given free beers far into the night 2!
The NZSAS can trace its beginnings back to the renowned LRDG (Long Range Desert Group), a British/Commonwealth army unit that took part in the North African desert conflict during World War II. Several New Zealanders also served in the original British Special Air Service during World War II. The New Zealand Government came to an agreement in February 1955 that a special squadron designed after the British SAS should be created as part of the New Zealand Army. New Zealand needed to play an operative and economic role to the Far East Strategic Reserve and the British counter-insurgency effort in Malaya 4.
The job of establishing this elite force would fall to a visionary officer – Major Frank Rennie. He trained the special forces to deploy overseas in the name of New Zealand 2.
Honorary Colonel David Ogilvy remembered, “Because of [Rennie’s] background in training, he knew exactly what he wanted for his SAS squadron. He wanted endurance, integrity and personal drive,” 2
An applicant to New Zealand’s first SAS training preferably had to be single, under 6 foot, weigh less than 83 kilos (183 pounds), have their own teeth, good eyesight, no criminal record, and be above average intelligence. By the winter of 1956, the 800 first hopefuls had been cut down to 180 men. They began a rigorous process to become New Zealand’s first SAS soldiers 2.
One of those original 180 men remembered, “To say our feet never touched the ground would be true because we started running and we ran everywhere for the next 6 months,” 2
The applicants would have to prove their skills in weapons handling and navigation. The training was always very physical. The infamous scaffold course being one of the challenges. In his drive for excellence, Rennie turned everything into a contest. Running competitions, initiative tests, always pitting troop against troop. Such was the competition, that everyone wanted to be in Rennie’s SAS but there was only room enough for 133 men. Seven days a week they trained and until Rennie said that he was satisfied 2.
When the NZSAS was founded in 1955, the troopers first donned maroon berets, which was also the color of the British SAS beret 4. The British, however, changed their beret color to “ecru” or sandy-colored in late 1957. This was the original color they had worn in the early part of World War II. Almost 30 years later in 1985, Major General John Mace (the New Zealand Chief of General Staff), who had served in Malaya with the original NZSAS, switched back to the ecru colored beret that was worn by other British Commonwealth Special Air Service units 5.
Modern Day NZSAS
The battlefields of open desert and thick jungle are no longer the sole arena for today’s NZSAS soldier. Over time, it has moved from strategic recon and hit and run raids to encountering terrorism. The West learned from the Persian Gulf War in 1991 that they had to fight differently and change their tactics. That is, they had to get underneath the typical military umbrella of larger established countries. Traditional warfare has given way to insurgent strikes, hostage situations and acts of terror 2.
This is the nature of the forces the West has been fighting in the war on terror. It is far more than any traditional threat to New Zealand, they face the threats of terrorist and insurgency groups in their own country. This is where special forces come in. Special forces fight the irregular warrior like an irregular warrior. They meet him where he lives. They take the battle to him in the same measure that he would take it to the West. As NZSAS soldiers, they must learn to counter this threat with maximum efficiency 2.
In today’s world, there are real threats. Threats that can materialize almost instantaneously. Since 9/11, the battlefields have moved to the urban environments of the world. It was entirely an offensive operation that meshed all the elements of untraditional warfare in one blow. Surprise, maneuver, economy of force and symbolism 2.
Today’s NZSAS is in a constant state of training. If they are not overseas on deployment, they are in training. During part of the training, they are exposed to a variety of non-lethal gasses. In this way, they learn what it is like to experience pain and discomfort but still continue to operate to the best of their abilities. NZSAS troopers are taught that every entry route into a building must be exploited and they are highly trained in mechanical and explosive entry techniques.
They are also taught advanced hand-to-hand combat that they call close quarter battle or CQB. They must presume that their opponent is bigger, stronger, better, faster, more skilled, is intent on killing them and is armed. If it’s kill or get killed, the first thing their enemy should know is that he will be destroyed. It’s about aggression but at the same time, it’s about control. Hand to hand combat is about the most basic aspects of warfare. One man against another man in the field using their agility and craft to defeat each other often in a very deadly embrace. This is just the beginning of counter-terrorism training 2.
“You take it for granted when you’re training going to war together. But underneath it all, you’re building up this close friendship and trust that lasts you even better than your own family ties,” mentioned one NZSAS operator, “You rely on each other for your life. You’re relying on the guy next to you to look after you when things are happening and your life is on the line. You’ve got to have feelings or you won’t survive. You have to worry about other people other than yourself,” 2
Far into advanced training, NZSAS troopers begin to specialize in a much more acute manner in the various disciplines that they’re going to need in the places they are going to be deployed. Now they must advance these skills to operational levels for potential deployments to places like Afghanistan. It’s about taking the rough edges off what they’ve learned and being able to employ it at the right time 2.
One time, the New Zealand Prime Minister and other notable government officials wanted to see an operational demonstration of the NZSAS. They were put in an SAS training house. They were then placed in a dark room surrounded by dummies with balloon heads that represented hostage takers. Suddenly, a team of NZSAS operators rushed into the room and took out all the “terrorists” using live rounds. The government officials looked around in amazement and shock at the deflated balloons. The point and impact of the training scenario was essential to them in understanding the power and the capabilities of the NZSAS 2.
After training, the recruits are assigned to their respective units where they will be expected to contribute to the NZSAS mission as much as a seasoned veteran. New members of the squadron serve a 2-year probation period where they will learn the standards of a seasoned SAS soldier working alongside their peers. They must serve for two years in an NZSAS regiment but most serve for much longer. On average, an New Zealand SAS trooper will face combat at least six times in their career 2.
“My wife has to understand that if one of my guys phone me for some reason, I’ll drop what I’m doing to help them. I’ve been doing that for 35 years now,” remembered a veteran NZSAS operator, “She knows that although she’s the number one person in my life, definitely the SAS is number two,” 2
Another veteran NZSAS member recalled, “During my first day, I was told to go home, dress in civvies and tell my wife that I didn’t know when I’d be home next. That was my introduction to the unit,” 2
Though sometimes compared to James Bond, in reality, SAS soldiers have no license to kill. Their actions are strictly governed by domestic and international laws. SAS operators work to neutralize terrorist threats without harming civilians. Their training is hammered into them and their actions can be the difference between freedom or spending time in prison 2.
Because they are too small to fight as a loan unit, the New Zealand SAS has proven its ability to fight with its international allies in any theater of war for more than 50 years. Whether in jungles or deserts, the NZSAS is known for its adaptability. From Malaya in the 1950s to the American lead war on terror in Afghanistan today, they have an amazing ability to undertake challenging missions and then deliver on those missions. They go in and do the reconnaissance work that is required and they are many times involved in the direct action. They have done their work well and they have been respected by the other forces they have worked with 2.
All NZSAS missions are closely guarded secrets. Their families just know that when it’s time to go, there are no questions asked. Their families never know if they’re going on a training exercise or an actual deployment. Unlike traditional soldiers, there will be no fanfare or public gatherings on their way to deployment. Instead, the operators leave quietly into the night 2.
Because the NZSAS have a neither confirm nor deny policy, the full extent of where these operators have been sent will never be known. However, here are a few of their known missions:
On November 20, 1955, not long after their inception, the NZSAS deployed to Malaya (modern day Malaysia) after completing parachute training in Singapore. At the end of training, a squadron of 133 NZSAS troops were assigned to assist the British SAS in their war against communist insurgents in Malaya 2,6.
The only way to get to the enemy was to go into the deep jungle and stay there. The odds were stacked against the kiwis. The lack of necessary training was their first major hurtle. Having trained in the snowy mountains of New Zealand, the NZSAS were badly prepared for the humid jungle conditions. It was a complete change for them to go through the swamps and to experience the humidity and rain. However, they gritted their teeth and continued on 2.
After intense jungle training in the rough mountains of Perak, the troopers went on to spend approximately 18 of the 24 months in Malaya operating in the jungle against communist insurgents 7. Gradually, the original NZSAS troopers grew accustomed to the jungle ways. Some helped greatly at winning the hearts and minds of the local villagers who in turn helped them train as trackers providing vital intelligence. The kiwis saw that the jungle was the same for them as it was for their enemy. However, the one who made the best use of that jungle survived 2.
In those days, it was just the attitude of New Zealanders working with other people that lead to friendship and gained their trust. The “originals” developed new jungle warfare techniques and made such an impact in jungle warfare that they were instrumental in bringing down the communists 2. During the two-year deployment, New Zealand SAS squadrons participated in 14 separate operations 8.
Vietnam 1968 – 1971
On November 16, 1968, one troop from the NZSAS was deployed to Nui Dat, South Vietnam where they were attached to a task force of Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR). Many of these NZSAS soldiers were of the Originals who fought in Malaysia almost one decade earlier. The Kiwis and Aussies were normally used for long-range reconnaissance patrols (LRRP) to gather intel but were sometimes engaged in leading assaults on enemy forces. After more New Zealand troops arrived, they detached from the Australian task forces and formed their own patrols 8.
Here is a first-hand account of one of their missions:
The patrol was about to step into the sights of a waiting enemy. One of the troopers remembered, “We went into this huge deserted rice patty at the edge of some scrub. It was to be a five-day patrol but it only lasted 26 minutes,” 2
Once the kiwis entered the scrub, the once silent North Vietnamese opened fire with their AK-47s and grenades. The NZSAS soldiers were trapped in a crossfire of deadly lead in a fight for their lives. The grass was very tall and the ground was wet as the kiwis hit the deck and attempted to locate their enemy. After re-grouping, they scrambled to await a helicopter extraction. Because the landing zone was a big clearing, there was quite a bit of time the soldiers were exposed to fire as they hurried to the awaiting choppers. The New Zealanders held their ground as they fired over 400 rounds and launched 25 grenades. It was absolute chaos with everyone shouting and running around. Finally, gunship helicopters came to the aid of the troops under fire. Escaping with overwhelming odds, this mission was one of the shortest in the entire Vietnam War 2.
Members of the first replacement troop engaged in a parachute operation on mid-December of 1969. The last rotation for the NZSAS was in late 1970. Despite the 155 missions and 26 months of combined service in Vietnam, only one operator was killed (Sergeant G. J. Campbell) and four were wounded 9. On February 20, 1971, the final NZSAS troops withdrew from South Vietnam 8.
East Timor 1999-2001
In 1999 New Zealand defense forces were deployed to East Timor in response to the humanitarian and security emergency. The people of East Timor, a tiny section of an Indonesian island, demanded freedom from the oppressive Indonesian government and sought to break away as a free, independent nation. A 40-man squadron of NZSAS deployed under the command of Major Peter Kelly. Along with Australian SAS troops, the NZSAS were responsible for extracting over 1,500 people 8.
On September 20, 1999, NZSAS troopers with detachments from British Special Boat Service (their version of the Navy SEALS), were responsible for protecting the airport, a seaport and a heli-port to allow regular troops to land and deploy. They did this without incident. The NZSAS operators were then used for various other jobs that included direct-action, special recon and special protection operations. The NZSAS then departed East Timor for home on December 14, 1999 8.
After the deaths of two New Zealand soldiers in the summer of 2000, additional support was required from the NZSAS. In August 2000, a squadron of about 12 NZSAS combat trackers were tasked with searching for Indonesian militia who were crossing the border into East Timor. Facing impossible terrain, the only access was by foot. So each man had to carry 4 liters of water per day but they could only carry a 7-day max. Plus, they had the food, ammo, radios, webbing, packs and sleeping gear. Used to patrolling long distances in training, in East Timor, the terrain and pack weight proved exhausting 2.
Despite the odds, the determination of the NZSAS trackers produced a number of successful combat actions that resulted in the deaths of three militia. The NZSAS trackers were also used to extract several United Nations staff members based in West Timor. The troops left East Timor for New Zealand in January of 2001 8.
On December 11, 2001, as a part of New Zealand’s involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom, the NZSAS began Operation CONCORD. The troops accomplished several missions including special recon, direct action, close personal protection and sensitive site exploitation. Initially special reconnaissance patrols were carried out on foot without helicopter insertion and extraction in the high elevation snow-covered regions of southern and central Afghanistan. This was exactly what these kiwis had trained for being used to the high elevation and snowy peaks of their own country 8.
In May 2002, the mission shifted to mounted operations with patrols utilizing altered American Humvees. The NZSAS also used dirt bikes in long-range extended-duration patrols. These 20-30 day operations would cover between 1000 and 2000 kilometers (620-1250 miles)! Three six-month deployments of 40-65 NZSAS operators served in Afghanistan during this time, before the troops left for New Zealand on December 12, 2002 8.
In February 2004, during Operation Concord II, the NZSAS returned to Afghanistan in preparation for the Afghanistan Presidential elections. They operated in several provinces and were used in the same manner as their previous deployment 8.
In 2005, Operation Concord III began. With the Parliamentary elections in Afghan approaching, additional security was needed. This time, the NZSAS used the newly developed Pinzgauer Special Operations Vehicles. After a 3 month delay due to mechanical issues with the Pinzgauer vehicles, they were all set. Again, the squadron performed long-range patrols as well as direct-action operations, before departing in November 2005 8, 10.
Over the three Concord operations in Afghanistan during this 4-year period, there were casualties on both sides during firefights. There were also several injuries during vehicle accidents and exploding mines or other ordnance. However, not one kiwi operator was killed 8, 11.
The New Zealand department of defense deployed 82 NZSAS and defense forces to support troops in Afghanistan in September 2009 to form Task Force 81 12. This was different from all past deployments to Afghanistan because it was stationed in the capital city of Kabul. Their primary mission was to oversee anti-insurgency missions in the greater Kabul area in support of the Afghanistan Police Crisis Response Unit. These NZSAS operators advised and educated the Afghan police so they could be efficient on their own once coalition forces departed 13, 14. The troops rotated three times during the original deployment that was supposed to end in March 2011. The mission, however, was lengthened for one more year with reduced personnel 15, 16.
The NZSAS also responded to the January 2010 attack in central Kabul 17. During the terrorist attack on the Inter-Continental hotel on June 29, 2011 in Kabul, two NZSAS troopers were injured while they provided overhead sniping support from a helicopter 16, 18.
According to US General David Petraeus, the NZSAS conducted 60 “high-risk” arrests of suspected insurgents, confiscated 20 weapons caches and prevented four attacks. He further mentioned that the unit had successfully conducted more than 90% of its missions and raids without firing a single shot 19. The NZSAS departed from Afghanistan on March 31, 2012 20.
On every wall of the NZSAS headquarters, are images and symbols are a daily reminder to its members of what being a part of this elite unit is all about. These are the faces of the NZSAS heroes:
Lance Corporal Leon Kristopher Smith
Born in 1978, Smith grew up in Wellington, New Zealand and enlisted into the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1997. Smith served two years before resigning his commission in 1999. He worked for various jobs in journalism and excelled in Wing Tsun Kung Fu. In 2005, he re-enlisted in the NZ defense forces as a rifelman and the following year, he qualified for the SAS selection course. In 2008, he badged in as a fully qualified NZSAS operator 30.
In 2010, Smith’s regiment deployed to Afghanistan and took part in Operation Concord III. In August 2011, the British Council Offices in Kabul were attacked by insurgents. Smith was a part of a 5 man NZSAS team that accompanied an Afghani Crisis Response Unit. After his fellow trooper, Corporal Douglas Grant, was morally wounded by gunfire, Smith rushed in over a wall, moved Grant to a secure location and provided him with medical treatment 31, 32.
The next month, Smith and his fellow SAS troopers assisted the Afghani CRU with a high risk arrest in Wardak Province in order to prevent a future terrorist attack in Kabul. As Smith was helping establish a perimeter around the compound, he climbed a ladder and was hit with small-arms fire in the head. He was airlifted to a US military base but died of his wounds 30.
Before his body was transferred back to New Zealand, his fellow soldiers conducted a ceremony known as the haka. The Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, have been performing the haka dance for centuries to celebrate the emotions of a significant life event 33. After the ceremony, Smith arrived at the Papakura Military Camp where his service was attended by over 300 people including the Prime Minister, Governor General and many military leaders. On October 7, 2011, Leon Smith was laid to rest in the Whenua Tapu Cemetery, in Porirua 34. Smith was He was never married and had no children. He was survived by his mother, grandmother and two brothers in Wellington and his father and grandparents in Tauranga 30.
Corporal Bill Henry “Willie” Apiata
Apiata was born in Mangakino, New Zealand in 1972 35. His father descended from the Maori people (part of the indigenous New Zealanders) and his mother was descended from the European New Zealand settlers 36. After his parents divorced, he grew up in Waima before his family moved to Te Kaha in the north island when he was seven 37.
Apiata affiliates with both the Ngāpuhi iwi or tribe (through his father) and the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui (the iwi of his ex-wife, the mother of his two sons) 37.
Apiata joined the New Zealand Army in 1989 and attempted to join the New Zealand SAS in 1996. However, he didn’t qualify. From July 2000 to April 2001 his Army unit (the 3rd Battalion Group) deployed to East Timor. Later in 2001, he attempted again to qualify for the NZSAS and made it 37.
Apiata’s SAS regiment deployed to Afghanistan in 2004. After a long day of patroling, he was resting on the hood of his Humvee. At that time, about 20 enemy fighters ambushed them from a nearby rocky area. RPGs destroyed one of the vehicles in the convoy and immobilized another. This was followed up by heavy machine and small-arms fire directed at the rest of Apiata’s troops. A grenade went off near Apiata’s position that blew him off the vehicle and wounded two other operators in the Humvee. Apiata assessed the situation and found that Corporal “D” was bleeding from an artery. He regrouped with the remaining soldier and planned to rejoin the remaining SAS troops located 70 meters (about 77 yards) behind them. His only choice was to carry Corporal “D” who was unable to walk.
Ignoring his own safety, Apiata stood with his wounded mate on his shoulders. He then lugged him across the seventy meters of rough, stony terrain, completely unprotected from the substantial crossfire coming from the enemy fire and the returning fire from the SAS troop position. It was a miracle that neither he nor his colleagues were hit by the gunfire. After handing Corporal “D” to a medic, Apiata resupplied his ammo and rejoined his fellow troopers in the counter-strike 39.
On July 26, 2007, Corporal Willie Apiata was presented with the Victoria Cross (the US Military equivalent to the Medal of Honor). He is the 22nd member of the New Zealand Defense Forces to receive the award, the first one since World War II and one of only 12 living recipients 40. According to Apiata, he was speechless and emotional when he discovered he would be receiving the award. His regiment commander commented that Willie was more comfortable in his hunting or commando web gear than a Class “A” uniform. He was very humble and not prone to saying much. It took a while for the word hero to set in for Apiata and it was rather a daunting experience for him to go from an incognito SAS operator to one of the most influential figures in New Zealand.
“I was just doing my job and looking after my mates. The only thing that was going through my mind at that time was where’s my buddies and how can I help them? At the time I was just doing what I was trained for. I see myself as just Willie Apiata. I’m just a normal person. This is me. The award hasn’t changed me at all, I’m just one of the boys and always will be,”
For the rest of his life, he would be looked at for his bravery and guts on the battlefield.
On April 2008, Apiata donated his Victoria Cross to the NZSAS Trust so it could be protected for future generations. The medal remains on hand for Apiata and his family to wear 41, 42.
During a re-deployment to Afghanistan in January 2010, Apiata and his SAS unit were responding to a suicide bombing terrorist attack. As he and a fellow SAS trooper were leaving the scene, they were photographed by a French photojournalist 38.
In 2008 Apiata succeeded Sir Edmund Hillary (who first summited Mt. Everest with Tenzing Norgay) as the “most trusted New Zealander”.
In July 2012, Apiata left active duty military service and joined the reserves. His newest job is to teach adventure skills to young people at the High Wire Charitable Trust. He did not resign from the military and remains with the NZSAS Reserve Forces 43, 44.
Corporal David Steven “Steve” Askin
Born on 1979 in Roxburgh, New Zealand, Steve Askins’ family moved quite a lot because of his father’s teaching job. They spent the last three years of Steve’s high school at Lincoln High in Gisborne 47.
Askin enlisted in the New Zealand Army in 1998 and had his first overseas tour in East Timor, where one of his mates was killed. He then left active duty and started to train as a helicopter pilot but returned to the Army eventually entering SAS selection 45.
While on deployment in Afghanistan, Askin was involved in the incident where Corporol Willie Apiata won the VC. Apiata commented on his mate 47:
“He told me a lot of what went on. But it was very quiet. You know he got as high an award as you can get without getting a VC and I’m glad he didn’t because it would have killed him. They are a monkey on your back 47.
“He didn’t want that. He told me one day ‘I’ve got the respect of my mates and that’s all I need’ 47.
“He was loved his wife and his kids passionately. He was a very strong family man. He had a growing faith in God 47.
“He wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t a saint. He got up to lots of mischief. As a teenager he was an absolute pain and caused us great grief. He thought rules and regulations were absolutely fine as long as he agreed with them but he was very well thought of and trusted by people who knew him. If you were in a tight spot he would be the guy you would want with you.” 47
Askin was one of four troops famously photographed outside the InterContinental Hotel following a siege by Taliban terrorists in June 201145, 46.
Askin and his colleagues were credited with saving the lives of numerous guests and officials at the hotel 46.
Twenty people were killed in the raid. Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee said at the time: “Our NZSAS personnel operate in dangerous and volatile situations and all of these men have demonstrated extreme courage in the face of a determined enemy,” 46
In 2014, Askin was wounded during a grenade-and-gun battle with the Taliban. He was awarded the New Zealand Gallantry Star, the second-highest military honor next to the Victoria Cross, for his bravery 46. He was cited on several other occasions for exceptional bravery during operations in Afghanistan without his identity being made public 45.
“During his time in Afghanistan, Corporal Askin displayed great gallantry and leadership in the face of the enemy. He put himself in the line of fire, and put the objectives of the mission before his personal well being,” a New Zealand government official said 45.
After his first tour in Afghanistan, Steve quit the army, married, had a child but the army enticed him back. He learned the Pashtun language and did another two tours 47. He left the Army in 2013 but still remained in the reserves.
Askin was an experienced pilot, and although he primarily worked in agriculture, fighting fires was a passion of his. Steve Askin had been working for “Way To Go Heliservices” when he crashed on Valentine’s Day 2017 near Sugarloaf in Port Hills, Christchurch 45. The 38-year-old had been pouring water onto the devastating flames which have engulfed land around the city when his helicopter went down. He died at the scene.
His father, Paul Askin, commented, “He just enjoyed life to the full, he said life is far too short and you’ve got to live it and he did. Steve was a man who did some dangerous things, he saw life-threatening situations in the army and he came through but it came to an end.” 45
Steve is survived by his wife, Elizabeth and their two children Isabelle and Bowie.
Not long after the funeral ceremony, Askin’s family received a letter from Afghanistan. It was from a woman who was one of the 70 guests at the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul. This was the same place where Askin’s SAS team fought against Taliban Terrorists who donned suicide vests and attacked the hotel. The woman who wrote the letter chose to remain anonymous 47.
She wrote: “I had hidden in a cupboard for six hours, and when I heard the insurgents going through the rooms below I realized that there was a high possibility I might not get out alive. I never expected anyone to come in and save us, and no words can express the gratitude that I felt. Steve was a hero,” 47
According to New Zealand Army News, as of 2013, the NZSAS is made up of six
- A Squadron – Special Air Service Squadron
- B Squadron – Special Air Service Squadron
- D Squadron – Commando Squadron
- E Squadron – Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron
- Support Squadron
A and B Squadrons – Special Air Service
These two NZSAS Sabre Squadrons are combat ready troops that are efficient in handling a variety of special ops functions. Every squadron is further broken down into four troops that concentrate in four unique areas: Amphibious, Air, Mobility and Mountain operations 21.
After finishing the complete NZSAS Regiment selection course, NZSAS candidates continue in advanced training to expand their foundational abilities 22.
D Squadron – Commando Unit
The Commando Squadron (formerly known as the Counter Terrorist Tactical Assault Group 23) was founded in 2005 out of the need to equip a devoted anti-terrorist effectiveness within 1 NZSAS and the New Zealand Defense Forces. The number of operators in this squadron is classified. Their main function is to counter domestic terrorism and aid in special recovery missions within New Zealand 24, 25. The Commando Squadron is positioned full-time with the other badged NZSAS squads at the Papakura Military Camp in Auckland and is under the command of the Commanding Officer, 1 NZSAS. The Commando unit uses the Battle Training Facility at the Ardmore Military Camp to train in CQB (Close Quarter Battle) as well as urban, dynamic entry and room clearing drills 22.
E Squadron – Explosive Ordnance Disposal
The 1st New Zealand Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Squadron is a specialist task unit inside the NZSAS. It began in August 2005 as an independent Squadron until it was included under Operational Command of 1 NZSAS Regiment in July 2009. It offers assistance to the New Zealand police to render safe chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and improvised explosive devices, commercial explosives and military munitions. They have jurisdiction in New Zealand as well as elsewhere where New Zealand troops are stationed. EOD troops wear the sandy beret with the EOD Squadron badge and stable belt. Their motto is “Into Harm’s Way” and they are stationed at Trentham Military Camp, with troops in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch 22, 26, 27, 28.
The Support Squadron is tasked with providing for the support needs of the NZSAS Regiment. This involves management, intel, medical, application and communications personnel 29. Support troops are offered particular positional education upon joining the Regiment and are encouraged to achieve other special training like parachuting 22.
How do I Join?
Every year, the 12,000 men and women of New Zealand’s defense forces are issued a discrete invitation by the NZSAS to apply to join their number. Those who respond will realize that this is no ordinary job application 1.
“A special forces soldier is trained in a number of military disciplines. That right there distinguishes them from the conventional soldier. What you have are known as the 1%ers. They’re the uppermost 1% in both mental and physical aptitude,” said Dr. Paul Buchanan, a military analyst 1.
It will demand 2 years of upmost discipline and personal sacrifice before they prove they have what it takes to join the exclusive 1%. It all begins with the infamous selection course 1.
Soldiers from New Zealand’s Army, Navy and Air Force are allowed to participate in selection. They must see if they meet the minimum standards for an SAS soldier. Tests such as the ability to survive days without food or sleep and to safely navigate unfamiliar terrain, always against the clock. By the last day, whoever is left standing will have gone through physical and mental hell. Unaware of what lies ahead, the volunteers must stand in formation for several hours to await the verdict. Each know that few will make it through the next 10 days. What they don’t realize is that some won’t even make it through the first day 1.
“What was going through my mind was to settle down because it’s a long road to home. It was built to be something extremely difficult,” commented a current NZSAS operator 1.
“Not knowing what’s going to happen and how I was going to react when it started to happen was hard,” said Dale, a trainer in the NZSAS program 1.
The Commanding officer of the NZSAS (2004-2006) stated, “It’s the hardest challenge that they’ve had to undertake in their military careers,” 1
With the famous sandy colored beret and blue belt as their prize, the volunteers must be prepared to give it their all 1.
Honorary Colonel David Oglbie, a veteran of missions in Malaya, Bornio and Vietnam, one of the unit’s famous originals mentioned to a group of NZSAS hopefuls, “Initiative, resourcefulness, physical guts, mental drive are all the things we’re looking for in you. Give it heaps,” 1
“In everybody’s mind when they enter selection is just imagine when you’re nearly at the top of that hill, that there’s another hill beyond that,” remembered a veteran operator, “Everybody was feeling the pain but you have a guy on each side of you who’s feeling the same. Some lasted only a day, including some very physical in shape people,” 1
These volunteers are as fit as they’ve ever been, following months of preparation…and they’ll need to be. Their mental stress and capabilities had to be tested to see what they can withstand. Right away, they must prove their fitness levels. Anyone not meeting the target will fail 1.
The volunteers have undergone rigorous psychological tests to determine if they have the compulsory physical, mental and emotional balance that the unit demands.
One of the military psychologists stated, “We use multiple sources, so we match the personality test and cognitive tests. We interview people, we look at their past performance which is one of the key indicators of future performance. You may get people attracted to the unit who are suited for such a unit because of their backgrounds and profiling. If they don’t meet the qualities, we can’t recommend them,” 2
During training, the SAS hopefuls must be prepared to meet the enemy in battle as an ambush could come at any time. Further into selection, they are put to the extreme test where they are captured by highly trained interrogation instructors who pose as the enemy 2.
“The lot of a special forces trooper who is captured by an enemy is a very unhappy one. The best thing that can happen is a quick death. That makes it imperative that they be trained in interrogation techniques, which in turn means that they have to be able to withstand brutality. It’s an unfortunate part of the business but it’s a very ugly business to begin with. It involves taking the soldier into the darker recesses of the human psyche. And it does involve physical pain. But if they don’t explore these things in training, they are more likely to crack immediately when they fall into enemy hands,” remarked Dr. Paul Buchanan, a military analyst 2.
“[The interrogation process] is not something anybody really talks about. The experience itself is between the recruit, the interrogators and those who were there. Because it is to a degree humiliating, dangerous and it’s not something you crack a bottle of champagne over. But it is, I believe, something that is needed,” said Eddie, a former operator 2.
After the initial selection process, only 5 volunteers earned the special NZSAS badge. They call it “badging in”.
During graduation, the CO in charge looks at the group of newly badged in SAS members and says, “Today, two families combine. The families of those being badged and the family that is one NZSAS. This is a significant rite of passage. You now stand with us and share a bond unlike any other. You are now one of us,” 2
In the world of the NZSAS, their story has only just begun. They’ve achieved a lot of get to that basic level of capability to be a part of the unit but now they have to live it. They are expected to be a contributing badge member of the family and they will have to live up to the challenge. They only have the basic skills and they will need a lot of refining 2.
During the first week of advanced training, the newly inducted SAS members meet their CO in an informal meeting, “Today, your jobs just got a lot tougher,” he begins, “September 11, 2001 saw this unit transform itself to meet a new and emerging threat. When the time comes, I can assure you, there will be little to no warning. You must be efficient and ruthless in the execution of your duties because there will be no second chance,” 2
“The SAS is very much a close family. So one in the family, they look after each other exceptionally well,” Lt. General Jerry Mateparae, Chief of Defense Forces 2.
The New Zealand SAS were first deployed to active service in Malaya in 1955. Since then, the unit has served with distinction in South East Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East and Afghanistan 2.
Training leads to a process of continuous improvement. Everybody wants to do better next time and they’re constantly trying to get better and better. It also means that operators get to the stage very quickly in a small group of men where they know that they can absolutely trust each other 2.
“Our country might be small in numbers but it is a giant in its contribution to the world. The greatest asset with which New Zealand is blessed is the quality of its people. And the New Zealand SAS epitomizes all that is outstanding in this great country,” General Sir Peter De la Billiere (CO 22 SAS 1978-1983) 2
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- Burke, D. (2017). SAS hero dies in helicopter crash while fighting wildfires in his native New Zealand. Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4230374/SAS-war-hero-killed-fighting-wildfires.html
- Letter describes how SAS hero Steve Askin – who died in chopper crash fighting Port Hills fires – saved woman’s life. (2017). New Zealand Star. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11829109
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