Australian Thai cave divers awarded bravery medals

Nine Australians have been honoured in Canberra after this month's dramatic rescue operation.

Adelaide anesthetist and cave diver Dr Richard 'Harry' Harris and eight other Australians have received some of the country’s highest bravery awards for their efforts in rescuing 12 schoolboys and their coach from a flooded Thailand cave.

Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove awarded the Star of Courage to both Dr Harris and his dive partner Dr Craig Challen at a ceremony at Government House in Canberra on Tuesday for their crucial part in the 18-day rescue operation.

The nine Australians gathered in Government House ahead of the ceremony.
Source: Marija Zivic

Awarded the Bravery Medal were: Royal Australian Navy Chief Petty Officer Troy Matthew Eather, the Australian Federal Police’s Senior Constable Justin John Bateman, Leading Senior Constable Kelly Craig Boers, Detective Leading Senior Constable Benjamin Walter Cox, First Constable Matthew Peter Fitzgerald, Acting Station Sergeant Robert Michael James and Detective Leading Senior Constable Christopher John Markcrow.

All nine were also awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.

Dr Richard Harris.
Source: AAP

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dubbed the group the "All Nations Team that rescued the Wild Boars".

"You formed an international human chain," he said this afternoon.

"We could not have better ambassadors showing our Australian values than you."

The group weren't just "doing their bit", Mr Cosgrove told the gathered group at the ceremony

"We think that you were remarkable - skilful, tireless, compassionate and courageous."

"Your nation is so proud of you. Today, Australia salutes you." 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten attended the ceremony. It was the first time the nine rescuers have been reunited since returning from the mission. 

Australian divers Craig Challen and Richard Harris following the dramatic rescue.
Source: AAP

The group formed part of the large international effort assembled after the group were discovered alive on 2 July inside the Tham Luang cave system in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province.

The “Wild Boars” football team - aged between 11 and 16 – and their 25-year-old coach were rescued by Thai Navy Seals with the assistance of doctors Harris and Challen as well as British divers who swam them out in specially sealed stretchers.

Following the successful rescue, Thai authorities also praised the Australian group for their courage and know-how and singled out Dr Harris for his part.

The Adelaide-based doctor sedated the boys and gave the medical all-clear for each evacuation. He was also the last person to leave the cave.

Members of the rescued football team enjoy their new-found freedom.
Source: Chiang Rai Public Relations Department

Throughout the rescue, divers were forced to contend with rising water levels, monsoon rains and the difficulty of swimming through tiny, cramped passageways with all of their gear.

The death of Saman Kunan, a 37-year-old former Thai Navy Seal, during the rescue mission, underlined the dangers they faced.

The medals

Mr Turnbull has previously described the rescue mission as an extraordinary act of heroism, professionalism, discipline and teamwork.

"The courage of those men and women who affected that rescue ... they worked together with their international partners in a way that is an inspiration," Mr Turnbull said following the rescue.

"I want to thank them, on behalf of a very, very grateful nation."

The "Wild Boars" spent 18 days trapped inside the cave system.
Source: Supplied

The Star of Courage and Bravery Medal were both created in 1975 and rank as the second and third highest civil decorations under the Australian Honours System.

Awarded for “conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril”, the Star of Courage has only been awarded 164 times since its inception and recipients are entitled to use the post-nominal letters SC.

The heroes

Dr Harris, 53,  is an expert cave diver who has taken part in rescue and recovery operations around the world. Sadly, he learned his father had died shortly after he emerged from the rescue operation.

Mr Challen is a Perth vet and long-term dive partner of Dr Harris. His friend aked him to accompany on the Thai rescue, interrupting his planned trip across the Nullabor.

Chief Petty Officer Eather is a member of the Navy’s Clearance Diving Team and has served in numerous roles during his 27 years of service, including tours of East Timor and Afghanistan. Last year he was involved in the recovery of a US Marine Corps  MV-22 Osprey aircraft off the central Queensland coast.

The Australian Federal Police withheld the identities of the six officers who participated in the rescue until today’s ceremony. All are members of its Special Response Group, a highly trained group that provides support in search and rescue and disaster situations. It also contains negotiators and bomb disposal technicians.

Published 24 July 2018 at 2:27pm, updated 24 July 2018 at 5:12pm
By Tyron Butson