Exhibition shines a spotlight on Australia’s Special Forces


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Ex-Australian Special Forces Corporal Javier Studenko was grievously wounded in a tunnel in Afghanistan after an enemy insurgent opened fire from just metres away.

For the first time, his story, along with those of dozens more of his fellow Australian Special Forces soldiers are out of the shadows and in the public eye in an unprecedented exhibition at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) named From the Shadows – Australia’s Special Forces.

Corporal Studenko was part of the incident response regiment, later renamed the special operations engineer regiment, and was occasionally required to search tunnel systems in Afghanistan.

“There was just a perfect footprint there and it sort of alerted me to the fact that there was someone there and probably right when I was,” Corporal Studenko recalled.

“And it was at that stage that I started getting engaged, probably from about two, no more than three metres away…There was just a flurry of red flashes coming out of what was just a pitch black hole and rounds passing by my head, passing by my body. How they were not hitting me, I don’t know.”

“I was just getting covered in rocks and shrapnel and stuff like that from the rounds that were hitting the walls and a few pieces that were embedded in my chest, and a large piece embedded in my leg.”

Corporal Studenko was pulled from the shadows of the tunnel and miraculously survived the shooting. The insurgent was killed.

A group of soldiers with guns in the dust storm
Australian SOTG soldiers on an operation in Afghanistan, 2012

Special Forces are highly trained soldiers and can insert themselves, undetected into any environment, by land, sea or air to conduct sensitive operations.

The AWM was granted unique access to the records and lives of Australia’s elite Special Operations Command, whose missions and identities are kept secret, for the purposes of the exhibition.

Historians from the AWM travelled around the country, gathering 660 objects relating to Australia’s Special Forces service. The exhibition also includes more than 25 video interviews produced by award winning broadcasters Chris Masters and Max Uechtritz, with rare insights from Special Forces veterans and their families.

The exhibition runs for a year and features more than 75 years of Australia’s Special Forces history from the Second World War to Afghanistan. The objects on display include uniforms, equipment, photographs, art and relics such as a motorbike once belonging to a Taliban bomb-maker code-named ‘Stiletto’.

Ex-Special Air Service Regiment Corporal Dave Farrell was part of the team pursuing Stiletto and found the motorbike after successfully eliminating the Taliban bomb-maker.

“Stiletto had tried to escape on a motorbike. His motorbike was there and I thought, I’m taking this. So we strapped it on the vehicle and took it back to base. Now it’s in the Australian War Memorial,” Corporal Farrell said.

Corporal Dave Farrell standing in front of the exhibition photos.
Corporal Dave Farrell at the 'From the Shadows' exhibition

Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson said the exhibition showcases the work of Australian Special Forces like never before.

“Their activities are secret. Their missions are classified. Their identities are protected. Their own families often have no idea of the danger they face. They operate from the shadows to protect Australia’s national interests, and to support its allies. Their story, albeit one that is hard to tell in full due to its nature, holds an important place in our national military history, and in our future and ongoing security. Every Australian should make the effort to see this exhibition.”