Willie Apiata - humble Kiwi hero

Corporal Bill Henry "Willie" Apiata was the first winner of the new Victoria Cross (VC) of New Zealand, which was instituted in 1999.

Corporal Bill Henry "Willie" Apiata was the first winner of the new Victoria Cross (VC) of New Zealand, which was instituted in 1999.

He also became the 22nd member of New Zealand defence forces to win a Victoria Cross, and the first to receive one since World War II.

Young Apiata
Born on 28 June 1972 in Mangakino - in the central North Island - Willie Apiata was the youngest of four children with three older sisters. His parents separated and his youth was spent in Northland, before moving to Te Kaha in Eastland.

Apiata left school at 15 and enlisted in the New Zealand Army in 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, Apiata served as a member of New Zealand''s third Battalion Group with the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor.

On his return he became a full-time soldier, joining the SAS for training in early 2002.

Bravery under fire
In 2004 having become a Lance Corporal, Apiata was stationed in Afghanistan as part of a New Zealand SAS patrol. It was here that he performed the act of bravery that led to his VC decoration.

The New Zealand troops had put up a defensive formation for the night when they were attacked by a group of around 20 enemy fighters. Grenades destroyed one of the troop''s vehicles and immobilised another. This was then followed by sustained fire from machine guns and further grenade attacks.

One of the grenade hits blew Apiata off the bonnet of the vehicle on 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.

''Corporal D'' had life-threatening injuries, and the other two soldiers began to apply first aid. Apiata took control of the situation, as ''D'' was rapidly deteriorating. However, he was in a very exposed position and the enemy fire was becoming increasingly intense.

''D'' was suffering from arterial bleeding and Apiata came to the conclusion that he needed urgent medical attention or he would die. So, rather than abandoning his fellow soldier to save himself, Apiata decided to carry ''D'' to a safer position where he could get proper medical attention.

Apiata carried ''D'' 70 meters through exposed ground and enemy fire - and miraculously neither man was hit. Apiata then returned to resume the fight.

Victoria Cross
On 2 July 2007, Corporal Willie Apiata was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.

The official ceremony to award the medal took place at Government House, Wellington. NZ Governor General Anand Satyanand presided over the ceremony, and Prime Minister Helen Clark and Apiata’s fellow army colleagues were in attendance.

A separate homecoming ceremony was held in Apiata''s home town of Te Kaha. At that ceremony Corporal Apiata said he was still trying to deal with the enormity of having received such a prestigious honour.

"I was only doing my job and looking after my mates. It means a lot to me, to my family and the unit itself."

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.