SAS trooper Mark Donaldson exposed himself so much to enemy fire that when Australia's last VC winner heard about his award he assumed it would be posthumous. Over two hours in southeastern Afghanistan last September 2, Trooper Donaldson, 29, repeatedly fought alone in open ground raked by accurate and heavy Taliban machine-gun fire to allow his wounded comrades to be dragged to safety. Deliberate exposure to draw enemy fire away from the wounded would have been enough for a Victoria Cross recommendation, but Trooper Donaldson then sprinted 80m over the same killing ground to save the life of a seriously wounded Afghan interpreter. In the words of the award citation, Trooper Donaldson - whose story Kevin Rudd said yesterday would be known to generations of Australian schoolchildren - reacted spontaneously to regain the initiative following an ambush that inflicted the worst casualties suffered by Australia since the Vietnam War. Under furious enemy fire Trooper Donaldson moved rapidly between alternative positions engaging the Taliban with his M4 carbine and 66mm and 84mm shoulder-fired rockets. "He deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire in order to draw attention to himself and thus away from wounded soldiers," the citation says. "This selfless act alone brought enough time for those wounded to be moved to relative safety." But, there was more. With the wounded, nine of them Australian, piled onto the vehicles the convoy began to withdraw with covering fire provided by Afghan US and Australian special forces soldiers sheltering beside the vehicles. Those soldiers still fit to fight had to jog alongside the vehicles. There was no space onboard, due to the large number of wounded. One of the last to leave, Trooper Donaldson, spotted the Afghan interpreter lying wounded in open ground more than 80m away. "His movement, once identified by the enemy, drew intense and accurate machine gun fire from entrenched positions," the citation says. "Upon reaching the wounded coalition force interpreter, Trooper Donaldson picked him up and carried him back to the relative safety of the vehicles and then provided immediate first aid before returning to the fight." There were so many occasions when Trooper Donaldson could have been killed in the battle that, when Australia's last VC winner, Keith Payne, 75, heard about the award his first reaction was that it would be posthumous. "I'm absolutely delighted we have a live one," said Mr Payne, who won the VC in Vietnam in 1969. "At a party like this the chances of coming out alive are pretty negative and he never got hit and that's amazing." The only other living Australian VC winner, Edward "Ted" Kenna, watched the ceremony on television from his Geelong nursing home. Mr McKenna won his VC in Papua New Guinea in 1945. Mr Kenna, 89, told his daughter to say that he admired Trooper Donaldson for looking out for his mates. "He felt proud of Trooper Donaldson and thought that he was a worthy recipient," Marlene Day said. Trooper Donaldson at a ceremony at Government House yesterday became the 96th Australian to win the country's highest award for gallantry. He is also the first to win the Victoria Cross of Australia, as it is now formally known after the imperial honours system was replaced in 1991. A world away from the dusty mountains of Oruzgan province, the 1920s-era Canberra drawing room was filled with guests. Among the gleaming Sam Browne belts and polished brass were former warrant officer Payne, defence force head Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull, army chief Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie and former defence force chief Peter Cosgrove. Standing at the back of the room in mufti, many wearing sunglasses to avoid identification, were more than 20 members of Trooper Donaldson's SAS sabre squadron flown in from Perth. With guests seated, doors were closed and shortly after 11.30am, Governor-General Quentin Bryce arrived to present the award. "Trooper Donaldson, the people with you this morning come from the deepest and warmest layers of your life, the highest ranks of your calling and the judiciary and parliament of the nation you serve," Ms Bryce said. "We award you a decoration whose words are reserved for the incomparable and unsurpassed. "Words whose integrity is untouched by vernacular. Words rare and revered. Gallantry, valour, self-sacrifice, devotion to duty. You have cradled life in your arms," she said in reference to Trooper Donaldson's heroic rescue of the Afghan interpreter. "You are the finest example and inspiration, Trooper Donaldson, I salute you." The awarding of the VC marked a "momentous day" for the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Houston said. Trooper Donaldson was now a member of a select "band of brothers", one of only 10 surviving winners of the VC alive in the world today, he said. And as tradition dictates, Australia's most senior military officer then strode over to Trooper Donaldson and saluted him. Mr Rudd said the Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor veteran had joined the ranks of Australian heroes and his feat of arms would become the stuff of legend. "Trooper Donaldson, the nation salutes you. A man of valour. A man who consciously took the decision to place his own life in peril to save the lives of others. I salute you," the Prime Minister said. "Generations of school children will now know of the story of Trooper Mark Donaldson. "It is a story of a hero, one which will be told in classrooms, workplaces and watering holes for many years to come." After official photographs flanked with senior army brass, Australia's latest VC winner, accompanied by his wife, Emma, and two-year-old daughter, Kaylee, spoke briefly to the media. No, he didn't think the award would change him. "I'm still Mark Donaldson, and we'll keep going from day to day and we'll see how we go," he said. "I don't see myself as a hero, honestly. I still see myself as a soldier first and foremost." Emma Donaldson, overcome with emotion during the ceremony, admitted to nervous moments while he was away, but said she fully supported him. "He was married to the army before he married me, and I support him all the way."