How the man in charge of Australia’s special forces avoided an ‘iceberg’

The meeting did not go well. It was early 2015 and I had found my way to Special Operations Command at Russell Offices in Canberra. I had surrendered all my electronic devices and notebooks, passed through an X-ray chamber and sped downwards in a lift to a windowless sub-basement. It was starting to feel like a Maxwell Smart sitcom.

I was meeting the latest SOCAUST, the Australian Special Operations Commander. I had met a number of them over the years but not Major-General Jeff Sengelman. I felt a bit like the new boy summoned for a dressing-down.

Former Special Operations Commander Jeff Sengelman.

At issue was my deed of agreement, which allowed me limited access to military personnel for a book I was working on about Australian Special Operations in Afghanistan. The deed had been endorsed a year earlier, but Sengelman now told me it should never have been signed.

His view was that Special Forces personnel needed no publicity – they were already revered – and secrecy, a core strength of his command, was non-negotiable.

It was strange, then, how circumstances conspired to ultimately position us as allies.

Following a raft of revelations about the SAS, we now know that the veneration they received was undue. In his first year of command, Sengelman came to believe that on a range of disciplinary criteria it was both the worst unit in the Army and yet the most audited.

When later commissioned to provide an overview of the regiment, former head of ASIO David Irvine described it as in a "state of dysfunction … by no means broken but by 2015 … in serious danger of becoming so". It was, he said, "ragged, run-down" and stunted by "arrogance, elitism and a sense of entitlement".

Australian SAS soldiers in Afghanistan.Credit:SMH

What happened in that first 12 months of Sengelman's leadership is critical. No one was more instrumental in initiating reform to the SAS. But he remains an unknown character: he has always refused interviews, and I was not the only one to ask. The most he would say was he was old school, uninterested in self-promotion and disinclined to talk to media.

However last week, in his new role as chairman of Harvest Technology, he slipped from the shadows to record a podcast interview with the Blenheim Partners series No Limitations on leadership. Caution stalked his words, but it was still revealing.

Sengelman had earned his coveted SAS sandy beret in 1987 at the age of 25, he said. He rose to command 4RAR Commando in East Timor in 2000. There were many further deployments, promotions and roles, which gave him an "unusual profile" and a "multi-faceted" take.

By the time he returned as boss, Sengelman had been out of Special Operations for five years. Unlike many of those he commanded, he had not been caught in the relentlessness of Afghanistan, so he came to the job uncompromised and with fresh rather than starry eyes.

Sengelman has also recounted in an internal report, "Commanding in Adversity", that the problems he took over as commander had become "too large to meaningfully manage". Attitudes developed "through a mindset of exceptionalism" had become a "confected justification for behaviours and outlooks unacceptable elsewhere in Defence".

What he also understood was while secrecy was a core strength, it needed trust – between soldiers and the command – without which it could turn toxic. So how to win back that trust? In the podcast Sengelman told how "working on intuition, I brought in the bulk of the regiment in a single room and I asked them to tell me their stories, but in a way that encouraged them to believe in me".

"I felt I needed to put my reputation on the table … and if I breached that trust … I would resign my commission."

This was the first of a series of meetings and of a growing number of revelations. Keeping his officers in the loop, the Special Operations commander commissioned sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets to undertake more research into what he was hearing.

"I did for a fleeting moment think that we were the metaphoric equivalent of the Titanic just about to hit the iceberg. So I grabbed the wheel and I pulled the hard right. It was an emergency turn. We missed the iceberg and lost a lot of bark, but we were still afloat at the end," he said.

The end of that process was the Brereton report, released late last month, which found credible evidence of up to 39 murders, with 19 current or former soldiers, almost exclusively from the SAS, to face criminal investigation, possible prosecution and the stripping of their medals. The bulk of the evidence for all this came from whistleblowers within the SAS itself.

There is some likelihood that Sengelman’s actions and the fact that truth came first from their own meant the regiment was saved. The volume and seriousness of offences are on a scale that no lid could forever conceal. And while we remain shocked, it is comforting that honesty, in the end, has prevailed.

The profile of Sengelman shows a humble beginning, his grandfather a World War II veteran and garbo. He was a bright student at Ipswich State High and took to both army cadets and poetry. Friends say he keeps it up. Revealed in glimpses of what he gives away is the mindset we wish for in those we license to apply lethal force: that is, that "killing is an aspect of war, not the purpose of it".

Sengelman has also revealed part of himself in "Commanding in Adversity", writing eloquently of the repercussions of violence. At a function, meeting an old comrade, "my delight rapidly evaporates as I learn for the first time of his struggle". Another friend he describes as "faded, stuttering and shadow-boxing the manifestation of PTSD". In the podcast, he tells of the grip of a mother on his arm that grows tighter as the casket of her dead son moves closer at the Richmond Air Base.

He also addresses the "voice of grace" that he heard above the chaos and violence of Iraq during the surge in 2006. Working as director of strategic operations with US General David Petraeus he received a target package which was the product of immense work and which identified the location of an al-Qaeda cell. The embedded Australian brigadier noted that a school was across the road.

"We were trying to dial down the violence and earn hearts and minds. Is this the right thing to do?" the brigadier asked. Sengelman recommended the missile strike be cancelled. Old-school SAS members often say the shot not fired is the most important.

I have heard soldiers talk of "doing the righty", or the right thing, as a sometimes scary proposition. In this case, the right thing was revealing their knowledge of war crimes. The adulators of Anzac who prefer the myth, the populist politicians and the braying commentators won’t agree. They are already twisting the debate to one about medals, not the atrocities committed in Afghanistan.

But Jeff Sengelman, as well as ordinary soldiers and officers like the MP Andrew Hastie, Chief of Defence Angus Campbell and his minister, former brigadier Linda Reynolds, have opened the way to transparency and healing.

The rest of us should be thanking them.

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