The Faces of Thales - Dan Keighran, VC

If the name sounds familiar it’s no surprise. Our newest Close Combat Advisor has been the lead story of every major news channel and newspaper in the country. Dan has been in the media spotlight since late 2012 when he was awarded the highest honour achievable from the Australian Defence Force – the Victoria Cross. Get to know him here.

Daniel Alan Keighran was born in Nambour, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. He stayed there with his mother and older sister until he was 5, then moved not too far away to a suburb called Maleny.

“It was good being on the coast as a kid,” he says. “My mum’s parents were there and I really looked up to my Grandfather. He was definitely a father figure for me growing up.”

By the time Dan was 11, his parents had rekindled their relationship and moved the family to a small town 100km north of Bundaberg called Lowmead.

“That was tough,” Dan says as he recounts the move. “We had nothing there, sleeping on dirt floors, no power or anything like that until they established the farm. I had to run 6km to school and back each day until I went to high school at Rosedale which is about a 35 minute bus ride.”

Dan’s parents began breeding horses and cattle on the farm, and as he recalls it, working there before and after school was tough.

“It was a rough upbringing for a kid for sure,” he says. “It may sound like fun because I learned to shoot, ride, I’d take some of the dogs with me and stay out overnight on the property, but it was a hard living. I was lean and seriously fit and no stranger to hard work from a young age.”

Towards the end of his schooling, Dan began searching for work opportunities.

“Let’s be honest here, employment opportunities up there in rural Queensland are just non-existent,” he notes. “There was no way I was staying on the farm, I knew that much, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

The Army

“I was really lucky to have someone I looked up to, and that was my Grandfather. He was an Artillery Sergeant in the Second World War and after speaking with him about it, he motivated me to join the Defence Force. So, I applied, did all the testing and had been approved part way through Year 12. As you can imagine, my final results suffered because of it. Instead of studying I was working to save up cash before I hopped on the bus and left for basic training at Kapooka that December.”

Dan’s Grandfather had advised him to join the Infantry as a Rifleman, so after Kapooka he went straight to Singleton in New South Wales to the School of Infantry.

“I did my Initial Employment Training as a Rifleman, then got posted to 6th Royal Australian Regiment [6RAR] in Brisbane, and I was still only 17. I was the youngest guy there. I think maybe because of my upbringing I was used to early mornings, late nights and hard work, so I managed to fit in really quickly.

“I got some great advice before I joined – be the grey man. That really worked for me. You never wanted to stand out,” he laughs. “I followed that advice and it worked for me for years.”

Dan would go on to deploy to Rifle Company Butterworth in Malaysia in 2001 and again in 2004, East Timor in 2003-2004, Iraq in 2006, and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2010.

“I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to get qualified as a Bushmaster Driver,” he says with a smile. “So, in Iraq I was driving a Bushmaster around, and same thing in Afghanistan in 2007 as part of the Special Operations Task Group. By then I was a Commander, so I really specialised in the PMVs. 

“In 2010 I deployed again to Afghanistan with the vehicles, but half way through the trip I went dismounted, so doing normal infantry stuff again and also working as a mentor for the Afghan National Army. That’s when the action that I was awarded the VC happened.”

The Day it All Changed

On August 24 2010 Dan’s time as the “grey man” would come to an abrupt end after a joint Australian and Afghan patrol in a village called Derapet in the Uruzgan province.

“We were doing a village clearance, a Key Leader Engagement job and we got bumped by a whole lot of guys,” he says casually. Dan has had to retell this story countless times, so he is quite understated about the whole thing. “The Army deemed that because of my actions that day that none of our guys were killed, and I didn’t get killed somehow and I was awarded the Victoria Cross for it.”

Although Dan has condensed the story into something akin to taking a Sunday stroll, in fact, what he did was anything but ordinary. In a nutshell, Dan repeatedly exposed himself to sustained machine gun and small arms fire to help direct the return fire from his soldiers, and to keep the bullets away from his mates while they treated a fellow soldier who had been wounded. His VC citation reads:

“For the most conspicuous acts of gallantry and extreme devotion to duty in action in circumstances of great peril at Derapet, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, as part of the Mentoring Task Force One on Operation SLIPPER.”

After reading the details of his actions in the full citation, it is incredible that Dan is here to tell the tale.

“I should be dead,” he says matter-of-factly. “I say that all the time, and I mean it. For what I did that day I absolutely should be dead. I was just lucky I guess. I could see the bullets strike the ground in front of me and behind me, and I could hear them fly past my head. I’m just really lucky that I somehow managed to make it through.” 

When asked if he relives that day, Dan shrugs and shakes his head.

“No, not at all,” he says. “I mean I’m still doing talks on the circuit, so I’ll go into various organisations and talk to them about leadership, teamwork, making decisions in high pressure environments, the importance of personal ethos and core values and things like that. So I talk about it a lot, but I don’t think about it apart from that.”

The Spotlight

In 2011 Dan discharged from the Army and began working in the mines at Kalgoorlie, in Western Australia. 

“I was still a Reservist, but I was doing some underground blasting in the mines and I got this phone call from the Chief saying he was about to board his jet and was on his way out to see me at Kalgoorlie,” he smiles. “He didn’t tell me why or anything like that, so as you can imagine my mind was racing trying to figure out what I’d done. Anyway, it turned out to be about the VC. Then, on the 1st of November 2012 I was officially presented with the Victoria Cross. That was a full on day.”

Gone were Dan’s days of blending in as he was thrust into the spotlight, on every TV news channel, print and digital newspaper and social media.

“I can’t really describe what that’s like,” he laughs. “You go from staying away from the media to that! It took a long time for me to adjust to life like that. I’m ok now, but for the first few years after it I was a bit lost on how to deal with it.”

Shortly after the investiture Dan left the mines and started his own consultancy company.

“I was consulting back to the defence industry,” he says. “I did some work for Australian Defence Apparel (ADA) in their R&D department and then I became an Ambassador for them for around four years. I was also on the speaking circuit and I’m on the Board for the Australian War Memorial, so I kept busy.”

To top it all off, Dan is currently doing his Executive Masters in Business Administration and is set to finish at the end of the year.

“Because of that and a few other projects I need to close down I’m doing two days per week with Thales at the moment, but I’ll be full time in January next year,” he says. “I have a two and a half year old son and I really wanted some stability in my life for him. Sure my role will mean travel, but nothing like what I have been doing. Thales provides stability for us and it also provides flexibility, and that’s really important for any business.  

“With my experience with PMVs and the land battle space, Thales was an easy and natural fit.”

Dan’s Life Tips

  1. Know your personal ethos and core values – don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in
  2. Making mistakes is fine, it’s part of life and growing. Just learn from them. If you make the same mistake three times then maybe you should stop doing what you’re doing?
  3. Don’t be afraid to try new things. It’s easy to get stuck in your day-in day-out routine, but get out there and experience new things. You never know where it could lead you.