Charles Upham Bravery Award

A speech to those gathered for the presentation ceremony
3 Jul 2012

For more images, click here.

Nga mihi o te ra ki a koutou.  Greetings to you all.

I specifically acknowledge: the family of the late Lance Corporal Leon Smith; the family of the late Corporal Dougie Grant; the Hon Judith Collins, Minister of Justice and Member for Papakura; Lt Gen Rhys Jones, Chief of Defence Force and Major General Tim Keating, Chief of Army; Virginia MacKenzie, daughter of Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham VC and Bar and Trustee of the Charles Upham Trust.

Janine and I welcome you all to Government House this afternoon for the posthumous presentation of the Charles Upham Award for Bravery to Lance Corporal Leon Smith.

I would now ask Niels Holm, Official Secretary at Government House, to read the citation.


On 19 August 2011 Lance Corporal Leon Smith, as a member of the New Zealand Special Air Service Task Force, responded to an insurgent attack on the British Council Office in Kabul, Afghanistan, where five British nationals were isolated within the compound.  Five insurgents had used a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device to gain entry and were raining down small arms fire, hand and rocket-propelled grenades and ultimately detonated suicide vests against the rescue force.

Lance Corporal Smith arrived with other members of the NZSAS to support the Afghan Crisis Response Unit. As part of a supporting plan Lance Corporal Smith moved into an over-watch position 30m away from the insurgents’ stronghold. The NZSAS personnel, including Lance Corporal Smith, began to prepare a plan to rescue the hostages and assist the Afghan Crisis Response Unit to clear the insurgent stronghold.

About 1135 Corporal Doug Grant, another member of the Task Force, was mortally wounded by insurgent fire as he rushed up a stairwell to link up with other NZSAS members.  Initially it was not known where he had fallen or what condition he was in.

With no concern for his personal safety, Lance Corporal Smith pushed into an exposed position to confirm Corporal Grant’s location. Without hesitation he requested to move to Corporal Grant’s position to render first aid, but was told by his Commander to wait for a ballistic shield. During this period Lance Corporal Smith’s position was receiving significant insurgent machine gun and rifle fire.  

Once he received the shield, and again without thought for his own safety, and with insurgent fire landing around him, Lance Corporal Smith leapt over a wall and across exposed and open ground and up the same stairs where Corporal Grant had been shot.  Lance Corporal Smith threw himself into the room where Corporal Grant was lying and began to provide immediate medical treatment. Corporal Grant was not yet confirmed dead and Lance Corporal Smith, as an SAS medic, applied first aid to the wound and commenced CPR, which he continued to administer until Corporal Grant was evacuated.

Lance Corporal Smith then returned to the fight and again exposed himself to enemy fire so he could engage the insurgents. He took part in blowing a large hole in the compound’s outer wall so the task force could minimise the open ground they had to cover to get to the panic room where the British captives were hiding. Lance Corporal Smith then provided covering fire as the captives were rushed to safety.

Throughout the incident Lance Corporal Smith displayed extreme calmness under pressure, tremendous personal bravery, and the utmost professionalism whilst under continuous insurgent fire. As a direct result of Lance Corporal Smith’s courageous actions Corporal Grant received the best medical treatment possible, the Task Force was able to recover all five British Nationals alive and the insurgent threat was neutralised.

Concluding remarks
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, I will bring this ceremony to a conclusion by speaking about the significance of this award.

Lance Corporal Smith enlisted into the New Zealand Army in August 2005 and completed New Zealand Special Air Service training in 2007.  It was a goal he had been working towards all his life.   What makes today special for Government House is that Leon was also a member of staff here.

He completed one rotation with the SAS in Afghanistan in 2010 and was on his second tour of duty when he was killed on 28 September 2011, aged 33 years.  However, it is for Lance Corporal Smith’s selfless and courageous actions five weeks earlier that we gather here today.

As we have heard, on 19 August 2011, he was part of a NZSAS Taskforce that responded to an insurgent attack on the British Council Office in Kabul.  During the incident, his comrade Corporal Doug Grant was killed by insurgent fire.

During the NZSAS response, Lance Corporal Smith exposed himself to insurgent fire to confirm the location of the fatally wounded Corporal Grant.  With bullets raining down around him, he ran across exposed and open ground in order to reach Corporal Grant and applied first aid until he could be evacuated.  And with his wounded comrade evacuated, he re-joined the fight and helped rescue five British people trapped inside the compound.

Lance Corporal Smith’s unselfishly brave and courageous actions that day 11 months ago, epitomise the values of the New Zealand Defence Force—courage, comradeship, commitment and integrity.

His courage is without doubt, but dealing with a dangerous and complex situation, where lightning quick life-and-death decisions were required, Lance Corporal Smith displayed exemplary commitment to his mission.  He demonstrated comradeship and did not let his dying mate down.  And through his actions he demonstrated the highest level of professional integrity, bringing credit to New Zealand, the New Zealand Defence Force and the NZSAS.

His brave and courageous actions also epitomise the qualities of the man this award is named for - Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham VC and Bar.

Captain Upham is rightly regarded as one of New Zealand’s most outstanding combat soldiers.  He remains the only combat soldier to twice receive our highest award for gallantry - the Victoria Cross - and was the only person to receive it twice in the Second World War. 

He was renowned for combining calculated and controlled courage with quick-thinking and resourcefulness.  And he was equally renowned for fighting on against seemingly insurmountable odds and, despite having sustained injuries himself, going to the aid of his wounded men. 

Like many of our elite soldiers, he was a modest and humble man and turned down a £10,000 gift raised by the people of Canterbury for him to buy a farm.  He asked that it be used instead to fund university scholarships for returned servicemen or their sons and daughters. 

When the scholarship fund eventually ran its natural course, the Charles Upham Award for Bravery was initiated.  The Award is made annually to the person who, in the opinion of the Trust, has, at risk to their own life, performed the most outstanding act of heroism during the two previous years.

Lance Corporal Smith is the 24th recipient of this prestigious award.  He displayed gallantry, courage and distinguished service above and beyond the call of duty.  He is a fine example of the kind of person selected for service in the NZSAS.

This is a bitter-sweet ceremony.  While we gather to honour Lance Corporal Smith for bravely coming to the aid of his dying mate, we also join with his family in the knowledge that his life was tragically cut short a few weeks later.  In that sense we grieve for both Lance Corporal Smith and Corporal Grant, with their families who are here today, as are his comrades-in-arms.

There is no honour that can substitute for a human life, for a grandson, a son, a brother, an uncle and a mate.  And yet in this award, I hope that Lance Corporal Smith’s family can take some solace in remembrance of a man who, while taken before his time, lived his life to the full.

Kia ora, kia kaha, kia manawanui, huihui tātou katoa—go well, be strong, be courageous.

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