I don’t want this to sound like anything other than what it was. Not romanticised and breathless like a Hollywood movie, and not matter-of-fact either, as if I’m too much of a hard man to feel anything.
My memories of combat sit between those poles. I was highly aware of everything going on around me. I was concentrating on doing my job, which is often just a matter of doing one thing properly, then the next thing properly, and staying in the moment. But that’s not to say I didn’t feel the same emotions any normal person would when the bullets and grenades were whirring so close that I could feel them before I heard them. I won’t pretend I wasn’t shitting myself, but in my job it’s all about not letting those feelings get the better of you.
The day I’m talking about, 2 September 2008, would change my life and in some ways come to define who I am. I respect how history and myth build up around events and lend them importance, but I can also clearly remember how it was from my point of view, and that’s the story I’ll tell: a contact I was in, alongside my mates, fighting to survive. It’s true that every soldier is, at these moments, fighting his own personal war.
I was on my third trip to Afghanistan with 3 Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment (SASR or SAS); the names of the operators have been changed to protect those members still serving in the SAS. I had only been in the SASR for four years, and was still a trooper, equivalent to a private in the regular army. My first two trips had been, for the most part, frustratingly lacking in action. Like my mates in the Regiment, I was keyed up for battle and craving that ultimate test of our professionalism.
During that third trip, the tempo of our tasks in Uruzgan province had risen steeply. In July, we’d lost one of the Regiment’s signallers, Sean McCarthy, to an improvised explosive device (IED), which had become the Taliban’s favoured major tactical threat. In August, I’d been in a vehicle that hit an IED, the explosion throwing me several metres into the air then dropping me onto the ground via the bonnet of the vehicle. When an American Black Hawk helicopter came to pick up the wounded, it had crashed almost on top of us. I’ll get to these incidents later. Suffice to say, there’d been a bit going on.
At the end of August, we went up to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Anaconda, named after the big battle in 2002 when the Americans and their allies, including Australian SAS soldiers, had taken a hammering from Al Qaeda but emerged to secure many of their objectives. I’d read books about Anaconda and heard about it even before I joined the Regiment. The story, about recovering from a disastrous situation and surviving despite being horribly outnumbered by the enemy, had inspired me by redefining what ‘success’ could mean from a soldier’s point of view.
The land there, in the east of Uruzgan, is mostly open rocky desert marked out by spectacular jagged mountains and valleys with bands of vegetation, the ‘green belt’, near the watercourses where the Afghans have their crops, livestock and villages. Even up in the desolate higher ground, though, one thing you learn in Afghanistan is that you’re never alone. No matter how isolated and barren the land, there’s always someone out there.
FOB Anaconda was a small base manned by American Special Forces Green Berets working with and training the Afghan Security Forces. Earlier that summer, we’d captured the Taliban commander of Uruzgan province, an achievement that was always tempered by the fact that as soon as one head was removed, another immediately grew in its place. The second night we were at Anaconda, we received a tip-off that this new commander was at a compound in the area. We walked all night through the green belt, but when we got to the compound it was empty, apart from a couple of women and kids. Either he’d slipped us, or the intelligence was wrong or slow in reaching us, which was pretty standard at that time.
This was the first of a series of jobs with the basic aim of sticking our finger into the hornet’s nest and seeing what we could stir up. Unable to get Chinook or Black Hawk helicopters to take us back to the Australian base at Tarin Kowt, we asked the Americans how we could help.
They said there was a valley to the east, called Ana Kalay, where they were constantly getting attacked. When they’d ventured up there, they’d also heard a lot of enemy talk on the Taliban’s ICOM network (ICOM is a brand of two-way radio), an indicator of heavy hostile activity.
I knew this valley. On my first trip in 2006, I’d been there and seen Afghan National Army (ANA) checkpoints and compounds. But by 2008, the ANA had been unable to hold these points and had backed away towards the west. The eastern end of the valley was now a virtual no-go zone – it had gone from what we call ‘permissive’ to ‘non-permissive’ – which was an eye-opener to me. In two years, things had got much worse for us as the enemy had reorganised and rearmed.
The general plan was for the Americans to set themselves as bait for ambushes. SAS patrols would walk out into the valley at night, pick our way through the hills, and set up at points where we figured an ambush would take place. The next day the Americans would come driving up through the green belt, the enemy would concentrate behind the cover of trees and buildings to get them on their return trip, and we’d be ready to take the enemy out.
It worked like a dream, at first. The Americans drove up in convoy, and the interpreter – or ‘terp’ – we’d have in the patrols listened to a radio and passed on the ICOM chatter, giving us an insight into the enemy’s movements. After the Americans went through, the Talibs responded to their orders and poured down from the east and into a position near the green belt to attack the US vehicle patrol. Everything went to plan, and we were able to take out thirteen enemy fighters and two cars.
Our morale was perky and the Americans, as usual, were stoked after getting into a contact. They had a different way of thinking. We approached contacts with, we hoped, calm professionalism, whereas the Americans got very amped up. They were incredibly brave, willing to take a risk to get a reward, but much more exuberant about the whole thing than we were. It had been a perfect ambush in that environment, and back at the FOB the Americans were high-fiving and whooping. We were just quietly pleased with having carried out another job in a professional way.
We spent the night at the FOB and again asked the Americans what we could do while we waited for our helo transport out. The Americans told us no one had been able to get past a certain point in the Ana Kalay Valley, an old white building that used to be a school. The Talibs’ view was that once any coalition troops went past that school, we were fair game. We suggested something similar to the previous job: send patrols up the night before, get them to walk around and set up, and then send a vehicle convoy out as bait.
This time our patrol, India 4, would be part of the bait. Other SAS patrols went out on foot on the night of 1 September to take the 12-kilometre trek into the valley and mountains, and we loaded up the cars on the morning of the 2nd. We had Barry, from one of the other patrols, with us in India 4 because he’d had an attack of gastro and couldn’t walk far. One of our troopers, Louis, got cut away to the walking team – luckily for him, as it turned out.
As we were loading the vehicles, the 2IC of our patrol, Bruce, was giving me shit. This was the first time I’d been in a vehicle since being blown up in August, and he was saying, ‘Damn, we’re gunna hit an IED before we even get up there,’ like I had a hex on me. Humour was our way of dealing with things. Bruce took photos of his legs before leaving, as he always did, so he could look at them later and say, ‘That was the last time I saw my legs. ’ I joined in, passing him the camera, saying, ‘You sure you don’t want to take another shot?’
We drove in a five-vehicle convoy into the rising sun, a mixture of almost forty Australians, Americans and Afghans. We were in Humvees, as wide as a tank but lower, with a dual cabin and a trayback set-up, like a ute. Each Hummer had a gunner in the turret and another in the tray. One car had a US explosive-detection dog (EDD) and his handler, ‘Rod’ Rodriguez, and masses of gear and ammunition. We ragged out the Americans pretty mercilessly for packing for each trip as if they were going to the Battle of the Bulge. It would turn out to be fortunate for all of us that they’d packed so much ammo.
It was extremely quiet on the ICOM, even more than usual for an early morning. In my experience, quiet is often an indicator of impending combat. We were also going very slowly, driving off to the side of the road on a dry creek bed to avoid the IEDs we suspected would be on the road. Our engineers and their dogs were out to the sides of the vehicles, minesweeping, while the Afghan engineers were at the front. They were impressive: they had a nose for a mine, and would often just stroll up, poke with a stick and find one, whereas we had a lot of technology to help us out.
Our convoy’s role as bait seemed to be working. We could see lots of women and children leaving the area, as always when something was about to happen. The ICOM sparked up. A Taliban commander’s voice was revving up his fighters saying, ‘We should attack them, we should attack them! How dare they come this far up the valley? We’re not doing anything about it!’
The Green Berets cleared a village at the eastern end of the valley. We saw about seven Taliban fighters ‘squirting’, or taking off up to the hills, and another SAS patrol shot them all, a clan leader and his cronies, as they ran straight into the waiting patrol. It was too far away for our patrol to join in. I had the shits and said to the boys, ‘This is bullshit. Nothing ever happens to our patrol. ’
By mid-afternoon, we were preparing to go back to the FOB. The ICOM traffic suggested that enemy fighters were getting ready for us to turn around and come back past the green belt. Some of us thought this was too risky, and our patrol commander (PC), Adam, said to his American counterpart, ‘Let’s wait till night. We know we’ve got the advantage in moving at night. We have NVGs [night-vision goggles] and they don’t, or if they do it’s only going to be one or two sets. ’
The Americans were adamant about getting back before nightfall. They said their Afghan drivers didn’t like being out at night, and their boss wanted them back. We had the option of either helping them out or cutting them away and going up into the mountains to link up with our other patrols to walk back at night. But it’s not good for coalition relations if you say, ‘You guys fend for yourselves, we’re outta here. ’ So we jumped in with them and started the drive back at about three o’clock. I remember drinking some water – it would be the last for a while.
Our patrol was in the last of the five Hummers. We drove through one area where the Talibs had said on the ICOM they were going to ambush us, and they hadn’t. It wasn’t unusual for them to talk big but take no action. There was just one farmer out there ploughing his field.
We went through a shallow pass, some 4.5 kilometres from Anaconda. The terrain was undulating enough to slow the cars as we came over a knoll. The cars edged forward until all five were on the forward-facing slope.
Ours was the last car through, and the moment we emerged, the air erupted. Rounds and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) were zinging past the cars. Guys in our convoy were yelling, and the cars were moving around into a defensive formation. Rounds were kicking up the dust all around us. The attack was coming from two points ahead of us and two to the southern flanks, in the green belt about 300 metres away, but it was hard to pinpoint exactly where they were.
We had a rough plan for what to do when it was ‘action on’. My job was to get an 84-millimetre rocket-launcher, push out to a flank and return fire. I had a heightened awareness, with my adrenaline going, but didn’t feel that I, or the situation around me, was out of control. In training, I’d seen guys losing control, going crazy, and later being unable to recall anything they’d done. In my mind, everything that happened that day is clear.
Soon we got word of our first casualty. One of the Americans, Joe, had been hit, a round passing through his arm while he was setting up a 60-millimetre mortar. Taking maximum care of our wounded was a priority for us, and probably something that made Afghanistan different from many previous wars Australians had been involved in (possibly besides Vietnam), where casualties were pushed back behind the lines and the momentum of the battle maintained. Here, a casualty was something we would deal with immediately, calling for an aeromedical evacuation (AME) by helicopter if possible. No one would be left behind. It’s a subtle but significant change in the approach to warfare.
Joe was put into a car to be taken care of by a medic. It was far too dangerous for an AME, even if it had been necessary for him. Rounds were still coming at us: I remember seeing shrapnel bounce off a car, whizzing and tumbling along next to it, still spinning in the dirt beside me.
With the rocket I managed to seemingly nullify one Taliban position, but it was impossible to tell how many more of the enemy were firing at us. As a scout for the patrol, my job was to find out where they were and shoot back, while reporting information up the chain through the 2IC, Bruce. But it had become pretty clear that we were caught in an ambush of some size.
After that opening assault, which went for about twenty minutes, things went into a brief lull before it was on again. A volley cut straight through our patrol, four or five of the bullets coming between me and my patrolmate Taylor, who was only a couple of metres away. We realised this firing was coming from behind us, on the high ground to the north. This was the moment we understood we were surrounded – including from above – obviously at a major disadvantage, and being driven towards an open killing ground to the west.
We felt really exposed at that point. Fortunately, one of the American JTACs (joint terminal attack controllers, who call in air strikes) had got an F-18 jet overhead, and it gave us some breathing space by coming through with a couple of gun runs to the north, putting rounds from its 30-millimetre cannon onto the fighters there. The JTAC, who was in one of the Hummers with a stack of communications technology, must have given the pilot a good ‘talk-on’, describing the target, because those rounds caused the enemy to back off for about ten minutes.
Despite increasing casualties, the Americans were still insisting on trying to get back to Anaconda. We kept trying to persuade them to wait till night. Another gun run from the jets gave us some more relief, but it only quietened the enemy for a few minutes. The shooting returned more heavily, from the green belt. About a kilometre thick, the green belt had plenty of cornfields, trees and buildings for the enemy to hide in.
Our car was giving us cover, but was also the enemy’s target. Whichever side we hid on, we’d receive incoming fire from that flank. When we switched, we’d cop it from there. Five of us were racing from side to side, huddling in and trying to get some rounds off, but we were mainly on the receiving end. Every car was getting covered in buzzing hornets, and RPGs were flying across the bonnet.
I ran towards the northern side of the vehicle and jumped into the tray, taking a few deep breaths as it started crawling towards the FOB. Bursts of incoming rounds were still alternating from the north and south. On the back of the Hummer beside me an American was on the 240 Bravo, a 7.62-calibre machine gun, firing wildly, everywhere.
I looked up to the north and could see this enemy position behind a sangar, or a rock wall that they’d built for cover, with holes they could put their barrels through. I put the American onto that target. ‘Left a bit . . . Left a bit . . . You’re on. ’
He fired, which only brought heaps of rounds our way, pinging off the car. He was ducking and weaving, though in that situation it pretty much doesn’t matter what you do, either your number is up or it’s not. Then someone yelled out a target indication to the south. As I turned, I could see a Talib pop up in the longer grass in the green belt with an RPG-launcher on his shoulder. I shouted, ‘RPG!’ I got a couple of shots off, but the enemy managed to get a rocket away. Whoosh – you could feel the power of the rocket pushing the air out of the way. The enemy fighter dropped.
Our group started taking a few hits. Adam, the patrol commander, was shot through the wrist. Barry was hit in both legs, and then Eric, our JTAC, who was talking to some Apaches to assist, caught a round through his ribcage. A few of us who were uninjured pushed away from our car and lay in a ditch. All Bruce and I had for cover were two small rocks, about the size of footballs, stacked on top of each other to create what passed for a wall. Rounds were zooming over our heads. Bruce, who was now leading the patrol, was doing an awesome job, telling us where to look and what to report on, asking how much ammo we had and giving us orders. It’s a big thing in a contact having someone talking to you who exudes calm. For myself, I felt I was able to control the fear and stay lucid.
In the ditch, Bruce and I had a chat. There was an abandoned compound about 50 metres away on the edge of the green belt. We talked about making a strongpoint there and pushing into the green. He said, ‘They might come out and try to surround us, but at least we’d have the cover of that building. ’
I said, ‘I don’t think the Yanks will want to do that. We could cut them loose and do it ourselves, but then we’d be on our own in this valley trying to fight until night-time. ’
There was a chance of getting more air support from some Dutch Apache helicopters, but when they were called in by the JTAC they decided not to attack. I’ll get to that in detail later. For now, all that needs to be said is that when the Apaches flew away we realised we were on our own. If we were going to get out of this it would have to be without further air support.
Again, we were limited in our actions by our responsibilities to the whole convoy. Meanwhile, the medics stabilised Barry and Eric and wanted to move Barry into our car. I ran around to help get him out, but the front car took off at speed and left me in the open. I tried to get alongside it, but a shower of rounds came at me as I was in the open.
I managed to make it to the relative safety of the next vehicle in the packet. Bruce and Taylor were beside it. The car in front was copping a heap of rounds. I remember seeing a lot of RPGs coming onto them. One bounced off the bonnet and the other went under the car and blew up. There was a big burst of dust and at first I thought they’d hit an IED. Fuck, we’re going to have a mobility kill. A mobility kill, or a disabled vehicle, could change everything for the worse. We’d have to rally around this car, put up a section defence, transfer all the people and gear out of it, and consolidate two cars into one. If we take a mobility kill, I thought, we’re in the shit. As if we weren’t already.
The car was all right, but we were taking more casualties. I said to Bruce, ‘They’ve got this spot dialled in. ’ The Talibs had their guns and RPG launchers set for that exact distance. ‘I’m going to run through that position and take cover there. ’ I pointed to a rock about the size of a coffee table. ‘The cars are what’s drawing the RPG fire,’ I said. If we ran out, we might be able to divert the fire for long enough to get our car through.
Bruce said, ‘Righto,’ and ran into the open beside me.
I remember hearing one RPG being fired off. We dived behind that rock and watched the car go through. No RPGs were shot at it, but we’d nearly been knocked off. I joked to Bruce, ‘That probably wasn’t such a good idea. ’
For the next kilometre, Bruce, Taylor and I basically ran around and around our car as it drove along, firing back as much as we could. We were drake-shooting across the likely enemy positions, raking them with fire, but it was depleting our ammunition. I’d gone through all six of the magazines I’d brought with me – there were thirty rounds per mag – but I still needed more, and picked up extra from the back of the car.
It was a pretty hairy period, maybe the most intense of the whole ambush. We’d be three seconds on one side of the car, with rounds banging in around us. We’d run around the vehicle to escape, and the rounds chased us. Once we got to the other side, we’d have five seconds’ breathing space to locate the enemy and shoot back before the rounds would come in from that side.
At one point I felt a round come really close behind, like someone had ripped my pants. I later realised that this was exactly what had happened: a round had gone through my pants without touching me. Soldiers have a complicated relationship with the idea of luck: obviously you train in order to minimise the impact of luck and maximise your control over a situation. Some believe more in luck than others. I’m one who trains extremely seriously to improve my odds, but I’m also under no illusion about how decisive luck can be.
I saw some enemy fighters breaking from one building to another, took some shots at them, and was changing my magazine when the strangest thing happened. Everything around me felt like it closed in and went quiet. I was shooting my weapon but couldn’t hear it. I felt odd, and kind of numb.
Soon I figured out what had taken place. The .50-calibre machine gun in the turret of the vehicle was only a foot above my head and the percussion of that, three or four rounds at a time, had dulled my senses. My ears were ringing and I felt deaf. Now I was getting a shock every time it fired, due to the percussive effect of the weapon.
Once I got myself together, I took some more cracks at the fighters in the buildings on the edge of the green belt. I could feel rounds hitting the metal of the car just beside me. I felt even more exposed than earlier, more or less a sitting duck. The metal was flaking, bits flying off and hitting my cheek. I had to run around again to the other side.
By now the ambush had been going on, the enemy rolling along beside us, for more than two hours. But we were getting towards the end of the valley. About two kilometres from the FOB, the ridge line squeezed in from the north and formed a choke point. It was another dangerous spot, but possibly the last before we could accelerate towards safety. The sun, setting in the west, was shining into our eyes but we could see the cars in front copping a fair bit of fire, as were we.
A bullet hit Taylor in the head; it caused a serious graze but he was still alive. It’s all luck, in the end. We were inching closer to our escape, but the fight was a long way from over. The car in front of us was having a really bad time, and as it came through that choke point, an RPG went off in airburst right above it. The grenade sent shrapnel down, and the force of the blast threw at least two people out. One was an Afghan interpreter, who’d basically had half his face taken off by shrapnel, and another was a dog-handling engineer, David.
Our car veered off to the flank and was overtaking the position where the other car had been hit. Freakishly, the vehicle was still able to move and had laboured forward. As we went past them, I saw the EDD labrador, Sarbi, running around like crazy. Her handler, David, got up and dusted himself off, but Sarbi took off towards the buildings in the green belt. Famously, she’d turn up again a year later.
I also saw the Afghan terp lying face-down in the dust. These terps took enormous risks just by working with us. If the Taliban knew their identities, their families would be threatened and their lives wouldn’t be worth living. I didn’t know the guy well, but he was part of our convoy and when someone’s injured you don’t make distinctions.
I yelled to Bruce, ‘I’m going to get that bloke.’ Bruce looked at the terp, who wasn’t moving.
The convoy was grinding towards the end of the valley and what seemed like safety. In probably 500 metres, we’d be all right. We were now about 80 metres ahead of the terp.
I said again to Bruce, ‘I’m going to grab this guy.’
He shook his head. ‘Nup, don’t worry about him, let the other cars pick him up. ’
But we knew the condition of the car nearest us, and for all we knew the other vehicles might have been getting hit just as badly. I remember looking at Bruce, and looking back at the terp. A lot of fire was still coming in, hitting the ground around us. I said nothing.
And then I took off.
There are times in life when you reach a crossroad without realising it. That day, in Afghanistan, I’d unknowingly reached such a point, and a voice in my head told me to take a particular path. If I’d made a different decision, chosen another path, then my life wouldn’t have turned out the way it has, and whether that’s for better or for worse I still don’t know. But that voice told me to take off, and what happened next became a bigger thing than me. It gained a symbolism that seems heavier than one individual can carry. For the Australian Army, it would turn into a badly needed ‘good news’ story. It brought me the Victoria Cross, an honour I only really began to understand when I saw how much it meant to other people, from senior military officers, the Queen and political leaders to people who came up to me in the street in Australia and overseas with tears in their eyes. To my mates in the Regiment, it was just a small part of one of many important jobs we did together in Afghanistan. To that interpreter, it meant the difference between life and death. But there’s a flipside. To Bruce, it’s still the stupidest thing he’s ever seen in battle. And 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.
At the bottom of it, whether it was brave or dumb or both, whatever combination it was of my professionalism and luck that got me through, it was what it was. A crossroad I didn’t know I’d arrived at, and a voice in my head that told me to run back and pick up that terp. And what I get asked – what I ask myself, without going anywhere near really knowing the answer – is where that voice came from.
Excerpted from The Crossroad by Mark Donaldson. Copyright © 2013 by Mark Donaldson.
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