The Journey To Kokoda
Innisfail looked like a war zone as I drove through it.
Homes had been cleaved in two, household appliances and furniture spilling from them like eviscerated guts; roofs had been ripped from buildings around town; and the surrounding banana plantations had been destroyed. It was March 2006 and Tropical Cyclone Larry had smashed this small north Queensland town and the lands around it.
I hadn’t seen destruction on this level since I’d flown into Dili, the capital of East Timor, in 1999 as part of the international peacekeeping force, Interfet. My boss on that deployment was General Peter Cosgrove. I was a lowly captain on the general’s headquarters and, after 20 years serving in a peacetime army, I was on one of the first Australian military aircraft into that shattered country ahead of our largest military deployment since Vietnam.
I was an operations officer and, like everyone who served under General Cosgrove, I had enormous respect for the man. Not only a soldier’s soldier, he was a leader who could communicate with every man and woman under his command in a way that made them feel valued and respected. Now, more than six years after East Timor, I was calling on him for help.
Sheets of dislodged corrugated iron roofing still littered the streets as I pulled up outside the Innisfail Council offices where General Cosgrove, the former chief of the defence force (CDF), was heading up the disaster recovery. I rushed inside for my meeting with him.
‘Thanks for the meeting, General,’ I said as we shook hands. ‘I feel guilty taking up your time, given the job you’ve got on your hands. I’ll only need two minutes.’
That was probably all I was going to get. I had a presentation I had prepared on my laptop the night before, but I launched into an impromptu spiel. ‘I’ve had a lot of experience on the Kokoda Track, General, and I’d like to give something back to defence. I’d like to lead a trek for wounded soldiers, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and close relatives of soldiers killed on active service, to help with their healing.’ I asked the general if he would welcome the boys to Kokoda when they finished the journey and he was instantly onboard.
The 96-kilometre long Kokoda Track holds a significance for Australians for more than its length or the lofty elevations it traverses. It was here, in 1942 during the Second World War, that Australian soldiers turned the seemingly unstoppable tide of the Japanese military advance through Asia and the Pacific.
Arguably more important than the First World War Gallipoli campaign, where the spirit of Anzac was born, Kokoda saw Australians fighting to protect Australian-controlled territories perilously close to our homeland. Here, an ill-equipped force of citizen soldiers fighting a tenacious retreat over the mountains from Kokoda, and a force of volunteers hastily deployed back to Australia and then New Guinea from the Middle East, was able to halt the Japanese expeditionary force within sight of the lights of Port Moresby and the waters of the Coral Sea, and then force the enemy back in the direction he had come.
In 2006, when I went to visit General Cosgrove with the germ of an idea in my mind, Australia was once more at war and a new generation of Australian soldiers were fighting and dying in Afghanistan.
Australia had mobilised for war in late 2001 in the wake of September 11, when Al Qaeda terrorists flew hijacked passenger jets into New York’s World Trade Center. Our country’s then prime minister, John Howard, had been in the US at the time and had immediately pledged his support for America’s newly declared War on Terror.
Australia had deployed a Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) in late 2001, comprising a squadron of the elite Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment, to Afghanistan. The SOTG, working with Americans and other coalition partners, had chalked up some notable successes, including contributing to victories in hard-fought battles in the Tora Bora Mountains, and had earned the respect of their allies.
With a new government under President Hamid Karzai installed in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda’s foreign terrorist fighters and extremist homegrown Taliban largely routed or forced across the border into neighbouring Pakistan, the Australian government judged the SOTG’s mission to be over and the SAS troops were brought home in late 2002. The task group had suffered one fatal casualty, Sergeant Andrew Russell, whose long-range patrol vehicle had hit a landmine.
The prospect of armed conflict loomed large elsewhere, however, and Australian forces were soon engaged in fighting in the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Afghanistan went on to the world’s backburner, and that was just fine for the Taliban and other extremist elements. Slowly, but surely, they filtered back into Afghanistan and began escalating their actions against the remnant forces still there.
By 2005, the SOTG was back in Afghanistan, this time augmented with a company from the 4th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (4RAR), which at the time was the regular army’s commando battalion. I had served in 4RAR in the late nineties as the adjutant, before being posted to General Cosgrove’s headquarters. In 2006, the mission in Afghanistan was broadened to include a Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force (MRTF), whose role was to train the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA), help rebuild essential infrastructure and train locals in building and construction trades. Along with the extra boots on the ground came the unfortunate but near inevitable increase in casualties.
I wanted to give something back to the young soldiers who were sacrificing so much to protect Australia. I was running a successful business organising global adventures for corporates, companies and charities and I had run so many programs on the Kokoda Track that it seemed it would be easy to organise a trek for wounded soldiers. I had a feeling that men who had been in combat, and suffered as a result, might benefit from training for and attaining a tough physical goal. I also thought a group environment would simulate the best of what the army was supposed to be about, without the regimental requirements and enforced discipline that accompanies military activities.
I had never been to war – East Timor was a peacekeeping operation and more of an armed intervention to restore order – but like a lot of ex-soldiers I wondered what it would be like to be serving in Afghanistan. I didn’t want to be back in the army, but I was pleased I had picked up the skills I had during my time in uniform and I wanted to reconnect in some way. I had missed the camaraderie that soldiers have. I was also confident that the power of adventure, if delivered well, would help in the rehabilitation and recovery of people who have suffered some form of trauma, be it physical or mental. In the past, I had helped people who were not the most physically gifted, or who had obvious disabilities, and worked with them so that they could set themselves goals and then reach these goals through demanding, yet controlled, adventure activities.
A trek across the Kokoda Track, I believed, would be a good thing for wounded soldiers and possibly for the families of soldiers who had been killed in action. It would give them a chance to share the bonds of mateship, to have time to think through whatever issues might be bugging them, and to push themselves, mentally and physically, to achieve an attainable goal in a safe, controlled environment. Tied to all of this, they would be walking in the footsteps of their military ancestors, across ground where ordinary Australians had performed extraordinary feats in the defence of their country.
The program made perfect sense to me and I had the blessing of General Cosgrove – one of Australia’s most well-known and most respected men; certainly our most famous military leader of modern times – but it was another five years before I would be able to see it come to fruition.
My idea was that the wounded soldiers and the families of fallen soldiers would be able to come on the trek for free, but that meant finding organisations to fund the trip. I approached companies, sporting bodies and even the defence force, with my idea about the trek but nobody seemed interested.
I was starting to feel like I had bitten off more than I could chew. I also had another big project to deal with at this time. Over several years running treks on the Kokoda Track I had developed a particularly close bond with the tiny village of Alola, one of the most remote and inaccessible spots on the track.
It had stemmed from the first trek I led, where my head guide, Eddie, had taken pity on me and invited my clients and me to take shelter in his own home, in Alola, when we were caught out during a tropical storm. Eddie became my main man and something of a mentor. After his death, his son Kila Elave took up Eddie’s mantle and became my local ground handler and head guide in PNG.
One day Kila revealed to me Alola’s greatest secret: the location of a ‘lost’ battlefield, unexplored since the tumultuous days of September 1942. Alola is near Eora Creek, the site of fierce fighting during both the Australian retreat from Kokoda and their subsequent advance as the tide was turned against the Japanese invasion. Most historians and track guides believed the fighting to retake Eora Creek and the Japanese defensive positions above it took place close to the creek itself, but Kila and his people led me to the site of a sprawling battlefield high in the hills above the creek’s crossing point.
It was here that Australian troops had scaled precipitous slopes to outflank the Japanese defenders and it was on this site that allied troops witnessed for the first time their hitherto vaunted enemy dropping their weapons and fleeing in retreat. With the help of locals I discovered a number of war graves on the battlefield.
The Lost Battlefield kept me busy for several years, yet I did not let go of my dream of taking a group of soldiers over the track. None of the corporate people I had presented my idea to were showing any interest, and defence was still deafeningly silent.
It was hard to blame either party: I had no wounded soldiers rearing to go on this adventure, which would convince corporate businesses to invest; and it would take a huge leap of faith on defence’s part to commit wounded soldiers to an untried program with a private company.
It took me a while to realise that, to paraphrase Kevin Costner from the movie Field of Dreams, I would have to build this thing before the parties would come together to support it.
If you want something built in the army the people to go to are the Royal Australian Corps of Engineers.
It just so happened that the XO (Executive Officer) of the closest army engineer unit to me in Brisbane, the 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment (2CER), was a bloke named Major Brad Skinner, who I had served with many years earlier at the army’s recruit training centre at Kapooka. Brad, like me, had started his army career as a soldier, a digger, and risen through the ranks. He had left the regular army and served for a number of years in the army reserve, but had come back into full-time service as the XO of 2CER when most of the regiment had deployed to Afghanistan.
It was late 2010 by now and Brad’s unit, and the local infantry battalion, 6RAR, co-located with them at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane, had been very much in the news that year. They had formed the backbone of what was known as Mentoring Task Force 1 (MTF1) in Afghanistan. MTF1 and the Afghan soldiers they were charged with training and mentoring had well and truly taken the fight to the enemy in 2010, pushing deep into Taliban-held country in Uruzgan Province. Working from small, physically remote patrol bases, infantrymen and engineers had done the hard yards, patrolling by foot through villages, fields and mountains to seek out the Taliban and enforce the rule of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
They had paid a price as a result of their proactive patrolling. That year was one of the bloodiest of the war to date. Ten Australian soldiers had been killed and many more wounded.
I happened to be chatting to Brad on the telephone and I explained to him that I’d been trying to get the Soldiers’ Kokoda program, as I’d come to refer to it, off the ground. Somewhat casually, perhaps flippantly, I said to him: ‘You don’t have any wounded, do you, mate?’
Brad paused a second. ‘Have I got wounded, mate? I’ve got heaps of ’em. How many do you want?’
It was the turning point I had been waiting for.
Due to the nature of the war in Afghanistan at the time, the engineers of 2CER were very much in the frontline; in fact, they were the frontline, moving ahead of infantry patrols and armoured convoys to search for the Taliban’s devastatingly effective weapon of choice: the IED. These homemade bombs, made of fertiliser or explosives pinched from old armaments dating back to the Russian invasion, and loaded with homemade shrapnel, were capable of flipping an armoured truck. Their impact on soldiers on foot was horrific.
As the XO of 2CER Brad was responsible for looking after the wounded members of the regiment and the families of the fallen. Consequently, he had a large number of people under his care. I explained a bit more about what I had in mind and Brad said he would discuss it with his commanding officer (CO), Lieutenant Colonel John Carey. Soon after, they invited me to come and meet with them. It would be a real leap of faith by 2CER, by Brad Skinner and John Carey, who Brad assured me was a good bloke, to allow their wounded to attend the program.
It was odd, for me, going back to Enoggera Barracks for the first time in many years. I no longer had an army ID card, so had to sign in as a visitor. There was a section of soldiers practising contact drills on a sports field, running and diving to the ground. There were some things I missed about the army, and others I didn’t.
I met with Brad and John and explained the concept of the Soldiers’ Kokoda program to them. I assured them that the decision on who would attend would be purely up to them. Interestingly, even at that early stage, Brad and John were identifying soldiers who had not been formally diagnosed with PTSD – known in wars gone past as ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’ – but who they thought might benefit from some time out on a trip such as the one I was outlining to them.
I was on a roll. I could hardly believe that a casual chat with an old army mate had leapfrogged me over the brick wall I’d been butting my head against for the previous four years. I thought about who else I might know, and asked around.
It turned out that the XO of 6RAR, the infantry battalion at Enoggera that had soldiered with 2CER in Afghanistan, was Major Bob Brown, who I also knew. While I was at it I decided to also call my old commando unit 4RAR now known as the 2nd Commando Regiment (2CDO) at Holsworthy, in Sydney. Since 2CER had already committed to the trip it was easier for the others to say yes. Soldiers’ Kokoda had grown a life of its own and there was no stopping it now.
The first time I met the wounded soldiers who were going to come on the Soldiers’ Kokoda trek was at my office and gym, in a building on the Brisbane River at New Farm. The mixed group of engineers and infantrymen from Enoggera came out, in uniform, for a briefing.
I could see a mix of inquiring, doubtful looks on their faces as if this was all too good to be true. Their units were offering to give them leave to go on a free trip to Kokoda with a bunch of civvies. The unspoken question in the room was, ‘What’s the catch?’ There was none, except for the fact that at that time I still didn’t have any sponsors on board to pay the soldiers to do the track. I kept that under my hat.
‘This is not a military event we’re organising,’ I told them. ‘The trek’s going to be run in a low-key environment and I just want you to enjoy it. Also, unlike the army, there’s no rank on this trip.’
Except for one officer, engineer Captain Matthew ‘Middo’ Middleton, the group was made up of privates, the most junior rank in the army; sappers (a sapper is the Royal Australian Engineers equivalent of a private); and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) – corporals and sergeants.
A thin sapper with browny-ginger hair turned to Captain Middleton. ‘You hear that, Middo? No rank.’
The officer grinned back.
There’s a joker in every pack and I’d just found ours; the sapper’s nametag on his camouflage uniform read, ‘Clarke’.
I explained a little more of what the trip would be like, and suggested a training program to get them in shape for the trek.
Some of the soldiers were still nursing quite serious physical wounds. One had suffered two broken legs in an IED blast, another had lost part of his hand, and one sapper had a damaged shoulder as a result of one of the eight bomb blasts that he’d been in or near. Still others appeared to have no impairments other than a dead look in their eyes or a fidgeting hand or limb.
They had all been at their peak physically, until recently, but training would get them back into shape. It would also help by giving them a new goal to work towards.
As word spread through the ranks of 2CER, 6RAR and 2CDO about a free, all-expenses paid trip to PNG, more and more soldiers started putting their hands up to go. Before I knew it I had 21 more than willing volunteers.
I also wanted the trek to include the parents and close relatives of soldiers who had been killed in action, but on this front I was still being met with silence from the Department of Defence. It was understandable – few officers would want to call a bereaved relative to offer a trip to PNG with an unknown private operator.
By pure coincidence, a colleague knew Pam Palmer, the mother of Private Scott Palmer, one of three commandos killed in an horrific helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2010.
With that, a new and totally unofficial channel opened up between my organisation and the parents of the fallen. Pam passed on the information to her husband, Ray.
Ray Palmer had wanted to walk Kokoda with his son, Scott, but he wasn’t sure about this particular trek. He was in contact with Damien Thomlinson, a commando who had lost both legs when his special reconnaissance vehicle (SRV) hit an IED. Damien had heard about the Kokoda trip via the 2CDO network, but had decided not to go. As well as being mates, Scott Palmer had provided the immediate first aid to Damien that had probably saved his life. Between them, Ray and Damien decided they would, after all, walk the Kokoda Track, and Ray’s wife Pam would fly into Isurava for the planned memorial service.
It was all coming together.
The soldiers who were doing the trek were continuing to show up at the gym. They seemed to enjoy coming to my place to get away from the barracks, and to mix with each other in a non-army environment, while still training hard for a specific goal. Often they would ask me if there was anything they could do to help with the organisation of the trek. Over and over again I told them I was fine, and that everything was OK, but eventually I decided to use their help.
‘There is something you can do,’ I said to one of the sappers when he again offered to help. ‘Can you build me a bunker?’
‘Sure,’ he said.
The next morning, at 9 am, a camouflage-painted army Land Rover towing a trailer rolled through the gates of the gym car park. The soldiers aboard piled out and started unloading bundles of sandbags, shovels and other gear out of the trailer.
‘You organised that well,’ I said to the young sapper. ‘How on earth did you get approval to use the vehicle so quickly?’
He winked at me. ‘We didn’t. We nicked it.’
With that they swung into action. Stripped to the waist they began filling sandbags from a mound of builders’ sand and hefted them inside the gym and offices in a human chain. From the trailer they took out bulky camouflage nets and, within a couple of hours, we had a replica of a sandbagged bunker from Afghanistan, with liberal amounts of spare sand spread on the ground in front.
The idea of the bunker had come to me during a conversation with a friend of mine, Peter Huybers. Peter’s a retired advertising executive who had been on previous Kokoda treks with me and I valued his advice. ‘How the fuck am I going to pay for this thing?’ I’d asked him, after telling him of the Soldiers’ Kokoda plan. Peter suggested that short, sharp personalised video messages to some blue-chip corporate people who had accompanied me on previous treks and adventures might be better than sending them emails or written proposals.
We used the bunker as the backdrop to filming those videos, in which I made personal appeals to people to support us. Peter’s idea worked and within a very short time I received pledges of support in the form of funding and commitments to join us on the walk from several CEOs and prominent businesspeople.
Training continued through the three months leading up to our planned departure date in July 2011. The army boys were coming together, though still in their unit groupings, walking up and down Mt Coot-tha near Brisbane; and the civilians joining us from the corporate world were hitting the fire stairs of office buildings.
The trip was growing like Topsy and there were more logistical considerations than usual to think about. The jungle drums were beating through the ranks of the defence force, as well, and as late as 10 days out from departure I was getting interest from wounded soldiers who had heard about the trek and wanted to come along. I could see the sense of purpose that was positively infecting the soldiers during training. They had been what the army referred to as ‘broken soldiers’ – men who, despite their brave service, had almost become surplus to requirements. The pervading feeling I was picking up from them was that the army would have been quite happy if the soldiers had medically discharged themselves, rather than the army having to spend the time, money and effort to fully rehabilitate them. The barracks gyms reminded them of their less than 100 per cent fitness, whereas the training we were conducting made the gym a place to work hard, have a laugh and catch up with old and new mates.
D-Day, departure day, was on us before I knew it.
It was a nerve-racking time, but exciting as well. The trip had gone from an impossible dream to a program that had already captured and rewarded the soldiers’ enthusiasm. Channel 7’s local news in Brisbane had done an item just the night before on the last-minute training at Mt Coot-tha and preparation for the trip by some of the wounded engineer boys from 2CER.
While I was in the car on the way to Brisbane Airport my phone rang. RSL Queensland had seen the story on Channel 7 and wanted to sponsor the soldiers on the trek. I turned around and headed back into the city for an impromptu meeting with the RSL and secured their commitment on the spot. I only just made it to the airport in time to catch my flight. Overnight my staff changed the logo on the T-shirts that trekkers would wear to ‘RSL Soldiers’ Kokoda’.
It was amazing news after years of frustration trying to find sponsors, almost too good to be true but the RSL were serious. The next day when we all arrived at Owers Corner it was time for the first trek to begin.
Owers Corner was the end of the line for Australia in 1942; if the Japanese had got past our 25-pounder field guns here they would have been on a downhill run to Port Moresby and on Australia’s doorstep. I had decided we should do the trek in the direction from Owers Corner to Kokoda because if there were any last-minute problems, or anyone decided they were not up for the challenge, we could quickly evacuate them back to Port Moresby.
I was full of trepidation. I had done the trek many times before and I thought I had planned everything as well as I could, but this trip was different. There was a feeling of raw anticipation and nervous energy. With us were men who had experienced incredible highs and devastating lows in their lives; this was their chance to come back, to be who they were again before the war robbed them of something, be it a limb, inner peace, or innocence.
As well as telling the trekkers to enjoy themselves, and to not dwell on the possibility they might not make it to the finish, I gave them a brief introduction to the Kokoda campaign. In July 1942, General Tomitaro Horii and a force of 6500 landed at Buna and Gona on the north coast of New Guinea. Their aim was to walk across the Owen Stanley Ranges via the primitive, narrow Kokoda Track. They had minimal rations and ammunition because recent experience had shown them they were, as a military force, unstoppable. Facing them was the Australian 39th Battalion consisting of untried militia – citizen soldiers from Australia known to their volunteer comrades in the Australian Imperial Force, the AIF, as Chocos, or chocolate soldiers, because it was thought they would melt in the sun in the face of danger – and a scratch force of local volunteers, black and white. The odds were against the Australians, just as they may have been against us. We set off.
That first day’s walk was supposed to be easy, but it was anything but for Damien Thomlinson. Yet he made it, with Ray carrying one of his legs across his shoulders.
The bugler’s mournful notes brought day one to a close as Ray and Damien came into camp and we sat around the tents in a jungle clearing. We were still separate tribes – the civilians, the wounded soldiers, and Ray, the only parent I’d been able to find to do the trek. I was confident that as we walked the track the different groups would bond and we would discover more about each other as everyone, especially the wounded soldiers, shared their stories.
However, I don’t think that myself or anyone else involved in the planning of the first trek fully realised just how beneficial or how moving it would be. So successful was that inaugural Soldiers’ Kokoda in 2011 that we organised a second, the following year. Word spread of the experience and our second group included many more parents of fallen soldiers. What follows are the stories of the soldiers, parents, and ordinary Australians who took part in two very extraordinary trips to the mountains of Papua New Guinea.
Excerpted from Walking Wounded by Brian Freeman. Copyright © 2013 by Brian Freeman.
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