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3rd Australian soldier wins British Commonwealth's highest military award in Afghanistan war

Taliban bullets tearing up the earth around his boots and zipping past his ears left Australian Cpl. Daniel Keighran in no doubt about the risks he was taking each time he broke cover to deliberately draw enemy fire.

His actions on Aug. 24, 2010, near the village of Derapet in central Uruzgan province helped his 40-man joint Australian-Afghan army patrol escape an ambush by 100 insurgents with a single casualty and on Thursday earned him the British Commonwealth's highest military award, the Victoria Cross.

The 29-year-old gold miner from the Outback town of Kalgoorlie, who remains an army reservist, is the third Australian to earn the ultimate accolade for valor in the 11-year-old Afghan campaign. A New Zealand commando also won the Victoria Cross in 2007 and a British paratrooper was given a posthumous award the same year.

Keighran's citation said he broke cover on several occasions to draw "intense and accurate fire" in a bid to find where enemy guns were positioned and to direct return fire from an exposed ridge.

Keighran also broke cover to draw fire away from a wounded Australian, his friend Lance Cpl. Jared MacKinney, so that their comrades could treat him. Keighran also helped clear insurgents from a landing area and enabled Mackinney to be evacuated by helicopter. Mackinney, 28, did not survive.

"I think training took over. There was a situation and that's the way I reacted," Keighran told reporters after receiving the medal at a ceremony at Australia's Government House.

"But ... I won't talk about that today. I'll leave that for another day," he said, refusing to give details of the battle.

Keighran revealed he only explained to his wife Kathryn Keighran the circumstances behind the medal two weeks before the presentation.

"It's not that I couldn't talk about it ... I suppose that's just the way I am. I'm quite private in that regard and what we did overseas," he said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard revealed that Keighran told her in a conversation on Wednesday that he could tell how far bullets were from his head by the different sounds that they made.

"They were spectacular acts of bravery," she said.

Australian Defense Force Chief Lt. Gen. David Hurley said Keighran's actions "turned the fight in our favor" during some of the most intense combat Australians had experienced in Afghanistan.

"Cpl. Keighran acted with exceptional clarity and composure that spread to those around him, giving them confidence to operate effectively in an extremely stressful and dangerous situation," Hurley said.

A total of five Australians were decorated for their actions in the battle, which later became controversial.

An Australian military inquiry in February rejected allegations by a soldier who fought in the battle that Mackinney had died unnecessarily because the U.S.-led coalition provided inadequate air support.

The allegations, made in an email and published in several Australian newspaper, fueled fears that the United States was more concerned about avoiding Afghan civilian casualties than protecting the lives of coalition partners.

Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan and is the largest military contributor to the campaign outside NATO. A total of 39 have died.

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