A Very Special Hero
Corporal Bill Henry "Willie" Apiata, VC (born 28 June 1972 in Mangakino, New Zealand) is a member of the Special Air Service of New Zealand and the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand. He received the award on 2 July 2007 for bravery under fire during the Afghanistan conflict in 2004, after carrying a wounded compatriot across a battlefield to receive medical treatment.
Corporal Apiata is the first and only recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand, as opposed to the Imperial Victoria Cross previously awarded. There are no living New Zealand recipients of the (Imperial) Victoria Cross, which was last awarded to a New Zealander for actions in the Second World War. Between 1864 and 1943, 21 members of the New Zealand forces were awarded the Victoria Cross including Captain Charles Upham, awarded a bar to the Victoria Cross in 1945 for gallantry in Egypt in 1942.
He enlisted in the New Zealand Army on 6 October 1989 in the Territorial Force Hauraki Regiment of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. He unsuccessfully attempted to join the Special Air Service in 1996. From July 2000 to April 2001 he served in East Timor as a member of New Zealand's third Battalion Group as part of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. On his return he became a full-time soldier. His second attempt to join the SAS in November 2001 was successful.
Apiata (then a Lance Corporal) was part of a New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) Troop in Afghanistan that came under attack from about 20 enemy fighters while holed-up for the night in a rocky rural area. The troop was attacked with rocket propelled grenades, destroying one of the troop's vehicles and immobilising another. This was followed by sustained machine gun and automatic rifle fire from close range.
One of the grenade hits blew Apiata off the bonnet of the vehicle in which he was stationed. Two other soldiers in or near the vehicle were wounded by shrapnel; one of them, who can only be identified as Corporal 'D', was in a serious condition. After finding what cover was available, the three soldiers found that Corporal 'D' had life-threatening arterial bleeding and was deteriorating rapidly. Apiata assumed command of the situation.
The three were about 70 metres in front of the rest of the troop, so Apiata decided the only option available was to carry Corporal 'D' back to the rest of the troop. Miraculously none of them were hit during the brave act. After getting Corporal 'D' to shelter, Apiata went back outside to rejoin the battle.
A Just Award
On July the 2nd, 2007, Apiata was awarded the VC for his bravery. In part the citation for the award reads:
"In total disregard of his own safety, Lance Corporal Apiata stood up and lifted his comrade bodily. He then carried him across the seventy metres of broken, rocky and fire swept ground, fully exposed in the glare of battle to heavy enemy fire and into the face of returning fire from the main Troop position. That neither he nor his colleague were hit is scarcely possible. Having delivered his wounded companion to relative shelter with the remainder of the patrol, Lance Corporal Apiata re-armed himself and rejoined the fight in counter-attack."
Three other SAS soldiers also received bravery awards for actions during the same mission. Two received the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration and one the New Zealand Gallantry Medal.
The official ceremony to award the medal itself took place on 26 July 2007 at Government House, Wellington. The ceremony was presided over by Anand Satyanand, the Governor-General of New Zealand with the Prime Minister Helen Clark and his fellow army colleagues in attendance. A separate homecoming ceremony was held in his home town of Te Kaha.