Soldiers who do heroic things usually say they were just doing their job; that most people have bravery within, given opportunity and circumstance,. This is certainly the case with Mark Donaldson, awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia, the nation’s highest military honour for exceptional bravery.
The Victoria Cross recognised Donaldson’s extraordinary courage during combat under exceptional circumstances. In Afghanistan in 2008 his patrol was ambushed and came under heavy fire from a Taliban force that surrounded them.
During the fire-fight, after enduring hours of intense fire, Trooper Donaldson risked his own life to rescue a badly wounded Afghan interpreter, who then survived and eventually recovered from his injuries – but that’s not the whole story of the combat engagement.
In his book, The Crossroad, Donaldson recounts how the convoy of vehicles transporting about 40 Australians, Afghans and Americans was attacked by a numerically superior, entrenched and coordinated enemy force. He writes that when returning to a forward operating base through a pass in the mountains “…the air erupted. Rounds and rocket-powered grenades were zinging past the cars.”
“My job was to get a 84mm rocket launcher, push out to a flank and return fire… with the rocket I was able to seemingly nullify one Taliban position, but it was impossible to tell how many of the enemy were firing at us.”
The opening assault went on for about 20 minutes, then a volley of rounds cut through the patrol, from behind.
Exposed and surrounded, the convoy got some relief from a US Air Force F/A-18 Hornet fighter called in by controllers to strafe Taliban positions to the north with 30mm cannon fire. But the relief was short lived, with fire seemingly coming from all sides. “We were on the receiving end. Every car was getting covered in buzzing hornets [incoming rounds], and RPGs were flying across the bonnet,” he writes.
A period of continual fire followed. With casualties mounting and realising the Taliban had their weapons set for the vehicles location, pushing forward to the end of the valley, and safety, was the only option.
From above it must have looked like a scene from a Mad Max movie, with the enemy rolling along shadowing the convoy for more than two hours, firing the whole time. Inching towards the safe zone an RPG exploded above the vehicles, the force throwing two people out. One was an Afghan interpreter badly wounded and lying face down in the dirt about 80 metres back. Donaldson made his decision: “a lot of fire was still coming in, hitting the ground around us.
I said nothing. And then I took off.”
In self-deprecating fashion, typical of warriors, Donaldson describes his memories of combat as “concentrating on doing my job” and being “highly aware of everything going on around me.” He writes that contact with the enemy is about fighting alongside mates, indeed fighting to survive, and that the events of 2 September 2008 changed his life, and in some ways defined him as a soldier and as a man.
Most soldiers identified for heroism define these exceptional events in combat as just one instance of the job that goes on every day. In Mark’s case he is very aware of how important the Victoria Cross is to other people: its symbolism of bravery under fire and shared recognition bestowed on all those who fight for their country.
“For that interpreter, it meant the difference between life and death… but to my wife, Emma, it’s not a pleasant memory. It’s the day when, in her mind, I could just as easily have not come home.”
In ‘The Crossroad’, Mark describes his early life as a rebellious teenager coping badly with what life through at him: the early death of his father – a Vietnam veteran – and the sudden disappearance of his mother, presumably murdered. All this, when he and his brother were in their mid-teens.
By his own admission, he was rebellious “deadbeat kid”, anti-authority and anti-commitment, and he prized his freedom above all else. “I was on track to becoming a professional dirtbag. Anyone who knew me would have seen a total rebel, the opposite of a uniformed soldier.”
But despite these turbulent, non-conformist years Mark showed a fierce determination to succeed in life. At age 19, with both parents deceased and inglorious years as a teenager behind him, Mark decided on an Army career, specifically with the SAS. He undertook a punishing personal training program, with the sole intention of becoming a special forces soldier, and he realised that ambition after just three years in the Army.
With all the challenges growing up combined with his experiences in the military, Mark firmly believes that confronting major challenges in life can shape the type of person who wants to take on the challenges of being an elite soldier.
Anyone who expects soldiers who experience combat and see extreme suffering, such as that inflicted by the Taliban on their own people, to have a forgiving nature are mistaken. Mark has little tolerance for the Taliban, and he has little time for the ‘armchair’ intellectuals who proffer a view as to how the military should conduct operations, confronted with life threatening situations. It’s also difficult for returning soldiers to fit into a society preoccupied with seemingly mundane and unimportant issues that present life challenges.
Mark is philosophical about life in the military and the assignment of a combat role.
“When you go to war, there’s a chance someone will get hurt, whether that’s physically wounded, psychologically wounded, or losing their life and never coming back to their family. That’s who we are. We sign up for that. That’s why we train and work so hard, to minimise the threat. I’m proud of our efforts in pitting good training and smart operations against a ruthless insurgency and the ever-present demon of bad luck.”