When Braden Chapman got the news that he was deploying to Afghanistan with the Special Air Services Regiment (SAS), the signals intelligence officer was elated. He would be serving with the most elite force in the Australian military.
“You really did kind of put them on a pedestal because there’s that myth about them — that they are the perfect soldier,” Chapman said. “They’re the best soldiers you want to deploy with.”
But by the end of his four months with the special forces in Afghanistan, Chapman’s view of the SAS had completely changed. He was disgusted by what he had seen.
During his deployment he says he witnessed the unlawful killing of two Afghans and the aftermath of another incident in which a wounded man was allegedly beaten to death.
“I think those people should go to jail,” said Chapman of his former special forces colleagues who he says were involved in the killings.
Chapman is one of a handful of brave Australians who have identified themselves while talking about what they witnessed in Afghanistan.
In the Four Corners program Killing Field in March, he spoke of the events that haunted him: a bound prisoner hauled away, forced to kneel, and an SAS operator ordering an Afghan soldier to shoot him. He alleged the same operator later killed a man who had his hands up in surrender.
The story also broadcast never-before-seen footage of one of Chapman’s SAS comrades shooting an unarmed Afghan cowering in a wheat field, a killing carried out from almost point-blank range.
The program stunned the Australian Defence Force and resulted in the SAS operator — known as Soldier C — being stood down and referred to the Australian Federal Police by the Morrison Government.
“It’s a very toxic culture,” said Chapman of the SAS squadron he was assigned to.
But the former SAS patrol member believes the culture was shaped by the constant grind of deployment after deployment, by leadership that turned a blind eye, and by the pointlessness of their mission in Afghanistan.
“We were bringing people back, handing them over to the Afghan authorities. Three days later they were released back out to go do whatever they were doing, even if they were a confirmed target,” he said.
“I think they believed that … we either don’t go out at all, or we just shoot these people. Because why are we risking our lives?”
‘There was that violent element’
Now out of the military, Chapman is ashamed of the Australian special forces’ behaviour in Afghanistan.
But why didn’t the signal intelligence officer report the incidents he witnessed at the time? Why has it taken eight years for him to speak out?
“I was a very junior member of [SAS] support staff,” he said. “It wasn’t until I sat down later and really contemplated what happened and thought about it.”
Chapman says the toxic culture among some in his squadron was not confined to operations out in the field.
“There was a pretty big drinking culture while we were deployed,” he said. “There were multiple parties where it wasn’t just your average sitting around having a drink, having some conversations. It was pretty intense. There were assaults.”
ABC Investigations has spoken to three other SAS members who were on the same deployment as Chapman and each confirms that there was at least one assault and a number of threats of violence made towards special forces support staff.
They spoke of the SAS bar in Afghanistan, the Fat Lady’s Arms, where homemade spirits were served with abandon and high-stakes poker games were played.
“I was just threatened when people were drunk, so I knew there was that violent element. It is one of those environments where you really don’t want to step out of line,” Chapman said.
IGADF inquiry to ‘define’ war for Australia
Chapman is one of hundreds of witnesses who have given evidence to the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) inquiry into rumours and allegations of special forces war crimes in Afghanistan.
He is not allowed to reveal what he told the IGADF, but he is a supporter of the inquiry and its aims.
“I think it’s really going to define our entire Afghanistan campaign for Australia,” he said.
“I think [the inquiry] just need[s] to lay it all out there, let the people decide … We’ve essentially, you know, supported these wars based on lies and cover ups.
“I’m happy that we’ve got to tell our stories, and people are actually listening. I’m not trying to really think about the end result and the final outcome. I’m just kind of happy that I got to tell my story and then try and move on.”
Moving on could prove the biggest challenge for Chapman. What he witnessed in Afghanistan has taken a huge personal and psychological toll.
“I don’t think they’ll ever go away,” Chapman said, when I asked him how long the images of the killings he saw would stay with him.
The IGADF report will spark debate about the future of the SAS, and whether this proud regiment should be disbanded, reformed or merged with the commandos.
Despite his experience with the SAS in Afghanistan, Chapman argues the SAS should not be disbanded.
“I think they will have to clean house just to save the unit,” he said.
“[The SAS] still serve a purpose … if they move back to how they were, concentrating on their original purpose it would be much more helpful than that direct action role that they’ve been doing for 18 years.
“If we’re going to have a military, then special operations are required. I just think if they introduced more transparency, it would make things a lot better.”
This saga is not over for former special forces soldiers like Chapman, whose testimony to the IGADF has been crucial. He, and many others, are likely to be called to give evidence in any criminal trials that result from existing and expected police investigations.
“I am nervous about facing some of these [accused] people, but [I am] willing to come forward and give evidence.”
A public version of the IGADF report findings will be released today.