ACT News

Former army chief goes into bat for dishonourably discharged soldiers at honours tribunal hearing

Professor Peter Leahy: "I don't believe people's medals should be taken off them for being naughty. They have earned them."
Professor Peter Leahy: "I don't believe people's medals should be taken off them for being naughty. They have earned them." Photo: Jacky Ghossein

Up to 10,000 "naughty" service men and women denied awards and campaign medals by the military establishment at the end of World War II were victims of injustice, a Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal inquiry sitting in Canberra was told on Tuesday.

Former Chief of Army Professor Peter Leahy said anyone who left the country to take part in a military operation deserved recognition.

"I don't believe people's medals should be taken off them for being naughty," he said. "They have earned them."

Professor Leahy said as much during DHAAT's 2012 inquiry into the case of South Australian brothers and Rats of Tobruk Archibald Lawrence Boyes  and John Thomas Boyes.

The Department of Defence had refused their nephew, Vietnam veteran Kenneth Stephens', applications for their World War II medal entitlements in May 2011 "due to the nature of their service". Both had been administratively discharged in 1944.

John's many infractions included insubordinate language and using threatening language to an officer while Archibald's extensive rap sheet included being absent without leave.


DHAAT set aside Defence's decision in 2013, ruling it should recommend both men for their medal entitlements and the medals be issued.

The Boyes inquiry, headed by Brigadier Gary Bornholt (ret), also recommended the establishment of the current inquiry to determine "the extent to which Imperial and Australian awards or entitlements have been improperly forfeited or withheld, since 1939" in the navy, army and air force.

Brett Mitchell, a research officer at the directorate of honours and awards, who gave evidence on Tuesday, said as many as 10,000 World War II service men and women could have lost medal entitlements but stressed this was a rough estimate.

"This is not an area that has been closely studied," he said.

The Australian Military Force's practice at the end of the war was to withhold or declare forfeit medals when an individual had been convicted of specified offences, dishonourably discharged or been discharged under the provision of certain military regulations.

Personnel could be dishonourably discharged for many reasons including being absent without leave, desertion, lack of moral fibre (cowardice), being homosexual and incorrigibility.

"The Boyes brothers were naughty to an extent but it seemed to me they had earned recognition for their service and were entitled to it," Professor Leahy, who had been consulted by Brigadier Bornholt during the earlier inquiry, said.

John Boyes applied for his medals in 1950 but was refused. In 1973 Mrs J Stephens, John and Archibald's sister, requested the medal entitlements for both men. This application was also refused.

Professor Leahy, who heads the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, said during his 30-plus years in the army he had not been aware of anyone entitled to a campaign medal being refused.

"I can't recall (us) ever taking anything off anybody," he said. "I think I would remember it."

Colonel Daniel Bennett, the director of personnel at Headquarters Joint Operations Command, confirmed the modern army did things very differently.

"Last year we did send a number of people home (from Iraq and Afghanistan) as a result of disciplinary action," he said. "At no time was the idea of withholding medals considered as part of the administrative process."