Mark Direen was born and raised in Hobart, Tasmania. From a young age Mark showed an interest in adventure and the military and in 1993, at age 18, he enlisted into the Australian Regular Army.
On completion of his initial employment training for the Infantry, Mark was posted to the First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR). In 1997, while serving in 1 RAR as an infantry sniper, Mark applied for and was selected to join the elite ranks of the Australian Special Forces.
Serving in the Special Forces for over 10 years, Mark specialised in mobility operations, sniping, personal protection duties, special reconnaissance and training of local indigenous forces. With numerous deployments during his service in the Special Forces including Sydney Olympic Games, East Timor, Iraq and five tours of Afghanistan, Mark has extensive experience and knowledge in operating under pressure, working in and leading teams in some of the world’s most hostile and unforgiving environments.
In 2007, while serving as an operational team leader in Afghanistan, Mark suffered serious injuries during an IED attack. Evacuated home to Australia, Mark focused intently on his recovery and rehabilitation. Displaying his trademark determination and tenacity, Mark successfully made a full return to health and deployed back to Afghanistan just six months later.
Discharging from the Regular Army in 2009, Mark continued to work in complex and high-risk environments, namely as a team leader and security manager at the Australian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan during the period 2009 to 2016.
Mark is now Director of Point Assist, a unique consulting firm specialising in adventure and hazardous environment travel and performance coaching. His 25-year career in the military, security and adventure travel fields have given him unique skill sets and the experience to provide practical solutions to even the most complex and challenging situations.
Mark is passionate about improving people’s lives - the way they think and operate. Mark is a firm believer in searching for your purpose in life and becoming the best version of yourself. Mark believes life experiences are the most valuable asset available to us and welcomes sharing some of his experiences with you.
I feel very fortunate to have been entrusted by the Tasmanian Government the opportunity to develop and facilitate the Point Assist Veterans Active Recreation Program.
Having just finished our fifth event l found time to reflect on the positives I myself have gained from facilitating these events. As a fellow veteran, it is great to be working with like minded veterans, those looking to position their future self for even more amazing experiences than their current or past self.
Creating environments for people to share stories and experiences inspires and fosters growth for everyone, myself included. That desire in us all to show up and contribute to life and be a better human each and every day in whatever we choose to do. In a world still too easily impressed by quantitative measures this program promotes qualitative outcomes.. meaningful communication, wellbeing, connection to purpose and enhanced relationships to self and others, the byproducts of which can be life changing for veterans, their families and our wider communities.
Thank you everyone that has attended over the last three years for bringing a positive mindset and making these such memorable experiences.
And to Samantha Mair thank you for articulating my vision and bringing this program to life. You are the mastermind behind these experiences.
Day one of the trip was all about getting into Timor-Leste and getting ready. Flights on Air North were good, smooth and fast making the trip easy. Arrival into Dili was also easy, in fact, I don’t think I have ever had a better experience arriving into a foreign country. A $30 visa on arrival and three small forms later; immigration, health declaration and customs and we are in.
Checked into our rooms at the Hotel Timor, which are great and picked up our bikes which will get us around the island for the next 9 days.
Tomorrow the fun really starts getting back to Balibo after 21 years.
Day 2 – Back to Balibo
Starting the day finishing up all our prep, the morning in Dili saw some work on the bikes (new back tyre and fork seal), a trip to the shops for some supplies and the purchasing of a local sim card and mobile data plan.
We were then off out of Dili towards Balibo. Departing at 1230 and arriving at the Fort at 1700. Along the way we stopped for drink at Loes, checked out the old Aussie base at Aidabeleten and visited some local salt farms. The roads from Dili to Batoe Gade, were good but rough up the hill to Balibo.
Finally, we are already impressed with the Fort Hotel at Balibo. The staff are welcoming, the food is great, the beer cold and the sunset, among the best
Looking forward to exploring the town tomorrow.
Day 3 – Balibo and Railuli
Staying at the Fort in Balibo for two nights has given us our first chance to catch our breath since arriving in Timor-Leste. It’s been a great base to head down to the border, to the “Red Roofed Schoolhouse” as Ben my travel mate calls it. He reminisces driving his armoured vehicle on the same road over 20 years ago when things were a lot more dicey. An unannounced visit to the village of Railuli was an amazing experience. Over coffee served we tried to converse with the no English speaking locals and with our poor Tetum, it made for quite an amusing exchange.
One of the things I have enjoyed returning to Timor-Leste, but didn’t expect before I arrived, was the smells which have triggered a lot of 20-year-old memories. Every smell I find myself saying to myself “oh, I remember that”. Some I don’t even know what they are, but still remember them. The cooking and the vegetation, riding through remote villages, it’s been great.
After today’s public holiday marking the date of the 1999 referendum, tomorrow we are looking forward to visiting the markets around Balibo and then heading down to Memo and Maliana on the bikes.
Already, this trip is delivering more than we expected.
Day 4 – Balibo and Maliana
21 years ago, I was standing in Maliana watching the locals rally for their parties in the country’s first elections. Then it was just two years since the referendum to become independent. Today, I am standing in the same place and a man who speaks English says hello and comes over for a chat. He tells me that he is part of the team charged with conducting Timor-Leste’s census. In 2001 Australians drove around in tanks. Now we are riding around on bikes chatting to the locals about the issues of the day. It is quite remarkable to witness.
I find that as we ride around the country often people that speak good English will come over to say hello and ask where we are from. The locals seem generally inquisitive and friendly. I think they also enjoy a good laugh as they listen to us try to speak Tetum.
Day Five of our Timor-Leste experience and we have toured Balibo with Mario from Balibo Trails. Rode down the hill to Tonobibi and then on to Memo. Had a chat with some Timor-Leste Border Police at the old Australian Memo Check Point. Rode into Maliana and spoke to an Australian living and teaching there. Ate chicken on the side of the road before spending the night at a Christian training school. Tomorrow we are headed towards Bobonaro.
Day 5 – Maliana to Suai
While the plan for Day 5 was to finish at Hato Bulico ready to climb Mount Ramelau, after a lunch visit to Bobonaro town centre, we adjusted and headed down to Suai via Mape.
It’s been a big ride today over the mountainous roads from Maliana. The highlight of the day; finding and paying our respects at the memorial of Corporal Stuart “Monsta” Jones, a Cav reconnaissance soldier who died on the 9 August 2000, serving his country and assisting the Timor-Leste people bring the stability we see today to their country.
After Monsta’s memorial, we visited the Marobo hot springs, and Bobonaro town centre before continuing the journey to Suai.
Of interest, I have observed since leaving Balibo that there is little to no infrastructure for tourists. Asking a local in Suai who spoke great English after living in Australia for a while, why there so few guest houses or hotels around Suai, his reply was simple, “no one comes here to visit, there is nothing to see apart from the odd crocodile on the beach”.
We ended the day speaking to Timor-Leste Veterans preparing for a local Memorial Day to the victims of the massacre here in Suai on the 6th September 1999.
Tomorrow we head to Hato Bulico.
Day 6 – Suai to Hato Builico
After not much sleep due to the heat and noise we were glad to depart our guest house in Suai. I have been excited all trip about hiking in the mountains around Mount Ramelau, so was happy to be heading towards Hoto Builico.
We started the day with a visit to a Kiwi memorial, that was erected to honour the New Zealanders that served here; followed by a local breakfast on the side of the road at Zumalai. We witnessed some cock fighting around Boltama and enjoyed the drop in temperature as we went from sea level to 2000 meters above by the end of the day.
The riding was also good today with everything from a four-lane freeway to winding mountain roads, rough tracks and foot trails.
Our accommodation in Hato Builico is quiet and comfortable and it will be an early start tomorrow climbing the mountain.
Day 7 – 3rd September 2022 – Mount Ramelau
Leaving the guest house at Hatu-Builico at 0530 I was a little surprised to find it took me until 0700 to get to the end of the road and the camp ground that the locals use when climbing the mountain. Even though my photos don’t show it, the sunrise was good as I walked enjoying the morning.
Once past the campground, you really start to get into the climb. It’s steep in sections but the bonus is the track is great. On the way up I passed many locals coming back down from watching the sunrise. I reached the Open Air Church near the summit by 0920 where I had a rest, hitting the summit just after 1000.
The mountain is great. Apart from climbing up the 1000 meters in elevation in just 6.5 km, I’d consider the hike easy to moderate.
While the mountain is spectacular and I would have enjoyed its company alone immensely, by 1400 it became clear the highlight of the day would be the locals on the hill. The amount of young people at the summit and the “Mother Mary Statue” was surprising. On my way back down I stopped to watch some young men building a traditional house. After I asked to take some photos which they happily obliged, they then brought me coffee and lunch. After the food was finished and cameras put away, they asked me to please spend the night with them on the Mountain.
So, looks like I’m staying and will climb back down to Hatu-Builico and my bike again after sunrise tomorrow.
Day 8 – Sunrise Mount Ramelau and return to Dili.
It was a cold night at 2800 meters above sea level so I was happy for the early start to head back to the summit and take in the most amazing sunrise. Shortly after I arrived the locals started to stream in. All up there was probably well over two hundred people. I was told that was because it was a Sunday. With the intersection of religion and weekend recreation, lots of Timorese pilgrimage there. Surprisingly the numbers didn’t detract from the experience, with me even getting a few requests for “foto mister”.
After the summit sunrise, it was time to make the ride back to Dili.
I stopped on my way back down to have coffee and breakfast with my new friends the builders and talk to the many young adults who wanted to practice their English before getting back to my bike around 10am.
The ride back to Dili was again great. Rough dirt roads slowly changed into reasonable 2 land sealed roads and it wasn’t long before I bumped into Ben also headed in the same direction. We made a quick stop at Wild Timor Coffee (we are returning there to film again Tuesday) and the Dare Memorial Museum.
Back in Dili, we still have a lot more planned for the next few days, but for now, I’m just looking forward to a good hot shower.
Day 9 – Exploring Dili
Today we woke up in the comfort of Hotel Timor again and while we had to change hotels mid-morning due to the HT being booked out; our new two bedroom Villa for $170 USD a night is a great setup. It is basically a house with a kitchen, two ensuited bedrooms and a laundry perfect for cleaning all our gear before returning to Australia.
Bike maintenance, cleaning and repair for two bikes cost a total of $20 USD and now both bikes are ready for two more days riding before we depart.
It was great to speak to a local school back in Tasmania via video call to talk about Timor-Leste today as well as continuing to meet Aussies living in Dili to learn more about the country in our travels. For great food and conversation we highly recommend both the Ha Ha Café and Castaway Bar.
But probably the most interesting thing to happen to us today was our change in plans on our way to Cristo Rei, the statue of Jesus Christ overlooking Dili to take in a sunset, to find the FALINTIL Drag Bike event 2022.
When a country has time for the arts or sport like this it shows a country moving forward. Looking around and seeing all the families and bike enthusiasts, it was a great reflection; “there certainly wasn’t events like this here 23 years ago and it’s good to see them here now”.
Day 10 – Dili
An early start to get to the Cristo Rei before dawn and the day was packed with exploring from there.
After coffee and breakfast at the Beachside Hotel at Areia Branca Beach we stopped to check out the fruit market and the Church of Saint Anthony of Motael, opposite the Statue of Youth. We then visited the Archives & Museum of East Timorese Resistance. Well put together with great displays and some real Timorese feeling, this is well worth the visit.
Lunch was at the Agora Food Studio, where the food was great and the local Timorese work to practice their English.
The afternoon saw us back off into the hills to return to Wild Timor Coffee, spending more time talking with Jack the local manager about all things Timor and coffee.
From there we made our way to Remexio to explore a battle site that the Australians had fought with the Japanese during WW2.
All up, it was a big day absorbing the island that is Timor-Leste. The culture, customs, places and people that make Timor-Leste so unique and perfectly suited for an adventure travel experience.
Day 11 – Dili
Our last full day in Dili started early again with some photos at the Statua Presidente Nicolau Lobato and the beach before enjoying a morning coffee at Letefoho Specialty Coffee Roaster.
We then used some time to clean gear but with our bags mostly packed by lunch, we headed back out to check out the local Dili driving range and grab some lunch at the well-known Turismo Resort. The afternoon was filled with a last ride around town and the returning of our little KLX150’s that have been so reliable over the last 11 days.
This trip has been an amazing experience on so many levels. I have learnt more about this country in 12 days than I did in 6 months of my army deployment. It’s going to take me a while to go through my photos and videos and share my favourites.
Side Note: After commenting today on my surprise that the only beer you can buy in the whole country is Bintang, I found a supermarket that sells a few Aussie beers, so naturally I had to indulge.
Day 12 – Timor Leste to Australia
After a few cancelled QANTAS flights and an unexpected hotel stay in Adelaide, we made it back to Canberra.
Timor-Leste. What a great adventure experience. The people were welcoming and the vistas, roads and mountains epic. Our only regret from the trip; it should have been longer.
Over the coming weeks we will be creating and sharing some video footage of our time in Timor. Thanks again to everyone who helped make this experience a reality, Young Veterans, Village Bakehouse at Port Fairy, Point Assist, Aquilifer Leadership and our Go Fund Me donors.
After visiting again, I can say with confidence that those Australian service personnel who gave time to Timor-Leste over the last 25 years have helped make a difference for the better.
Discharging from 16 years in the regular army I didn’t have to worry about getting a new job on “civi street”. I took the skills acquired in the Special Forces and returned to Afghanistan to work at the Australian Embassy as a security contractor. It was an easy transition from Defence, some would say, hardly a transition at all. While there were a few major differences in my work before and after the ADF, there were a lot of similarities. Regardless, I enjoyed the challenge of private security contracting and spent the next six years after discharging from the army doing my best to keep people safe in complex and dangerous environments.
The uncertainty and real transition for me came in 2016, when I finished working in Afghanistan.
After 14 years of working on and off in the war troubled country, I returned to Australia with the goal of starting an adventure travel business in Tasmania. It was then I learned the real difficulties of being a small player in an industry where you have to compete for every client.
As a veteran, I was running a few hikes for former military and first responders, showcasing how beneficial the adventure and tranquility of the wilderness can be for mindset. Around this time, I was asked to speak to a group of military veterans about my experience post army. I remember answering a question about useful skills the military teach by saying; “Most of the skills the military teach us are not useful once you get out of Defence”, referring to skills like sniping, proficiency with guns and explosives and techniques for destroying an enemy.
A few years on, I now believe I answered the question poorly. At the time, I wasn’t too different to a lot of other veterans (and society for that matter); I thought that getting out of Defence I needed to be totally retrained in order to fit back into normal society.
How wrong I was.
“What skills can we take from our military service that will help us in life on civi street. What skills do the military give us that make us better people. What skills should we never stop using. What skills make us more competitive in the job market and able to live a life full of passion, purpose and meaning. A life where we constantly improve and evolve?”
If asked the question again today, my answer would be very different.
The huge list of soft skills of course – the important skills in life.
There are two main types of skills in life; Hard Skills and Soft Skills. The military teaches both.
The strip and assemble of a belt feed general purpose machine gun or the best place to position your fire support in order to effectively suppress an enemy while you overwhelm them, are hard skills. The more hard skills a soldier has, the more useful he is. Hard skills are the abilities and proficiencies that can be taught and trained. They are easy to recognise and test for competency.
The real gold dust however, lies in the soft skills we develop in the military. The behaviours, traits and non-technical abilities that relate to how we view and do things.
For most people, having the marksmanship skills to hit an enemy in the chest at 800m loses its usefulness after military service. However, work ethic, flexibility, mental toughness, tenacity, patience and problem solving are key attributes that will see you succeed at whatever you choose to pursue post service.
The Australian Special Air Service Regiment’s (SAS) selection course I completed in 1997, was at the time, the only course in the ADF not designed to teach you anything. It’s goal is purely to determine if soldiers are suitable for training, to identify those with the soft skills and attributes to become Special Forces operators. An open applicant field across all services and ranks of the ADF is evidence to the order of priority this high performing team of professional soldiers place on these skills. Senior instructors know they can teach you to shoot later but it is a lot harder to teach you a thirst to learn, to remain positive when situations look grim and display mental fortitude in times of adversity.
Likewise, in the civilian world today; it is why any human resource manager or selection panel worth their weight values these same skills when it comes to hiring new team members. They know it’s precisely these skills that will make you most successful in the workplace.
So what are the personal traits and attributes that make up those desirable soft skills?
The list is long, and examples include:
Mental and physical toughness,
Teamwork as well as the ability to work and achieve results alone, unsupervised, (having both, despite popular belief, is not common)
Risk management and the ability to accept risk, (something modern society is becoming less and less able to tolerate)
Conflict resolution and tolerance for other ideas,
Identification and management of your emotions,
Clear and concise communication, as well as listening skills,
Punctuality and time management,
Motivation and purpose,
Positivity and work ethic,
Prioritisation and problem solving,
The ability to self-evaluate yourself and your performance,
Adaptability and dependability; and
Interpersonal or people skills and empathy.
The million-dollar question is how do we improve our soft skills?
While it is easy to listen to a talk on leadership, it won’t instantly make you a good leader. Unlike hard skills that can be taught in a 40-minute lesson and cemented with practice over time; experience is the critical factor in soft skills. It is why there are thousands of highly educated yet poor leaders but also thousands of great leaders, communicators and problem solvers that have never taken a single class in it. Maybe their parents were good communicators or maybe they had a childhood sporting coach that was a great mentor. Most likely they have just learned through experience what works and what doesn’t, how to express their ideas and get the best out of people, perfecting these skills over time since they were young.
Self-awareness is key with soft skills. Identify those you already possess to a high standard so they can go down on your resumé and help you win that next promotion. Equally as important, is recognising any areas that could do with improvement. Identify the soft skill you are lacking and want to improve. Be conscious of when they are required. Research these skills and possible actions to improve them. Be aware and practice the skill then evaluate and collect feedback.
Soft skills are transferable not just throughout your career but to everything you do. Improvement should be a steady and continuous cycle, one that never ends, as these vital skills assist us to live a life full of passion, meaning and unforgettable experiences.
September 11, 2021. Twenty years since the beginning of the Afghanistan war on terror. Twenty years, to the day that I was finishing a six-month deployment to East Timor assisting the Timorese people safely hold their first Constituent Assembly elections and freely vote for representatives for each of the countries thirteen new districts.
The East Timor elections on 30 August 2001 were starting to look like they had been a success and by 11 September 2001 I was spending time cleaning my equipment ready to start my return journey back to Australia. It had been a busy four years after joining the Australian SASR in 1997. With the selection course, a year of training, the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 and now the East Timor deployment, I was looking forward to some leave and time at home with my family.
As I cleaned and packed my gear that night at our base in Balibo I declined a colleague’s offer to watch the news events unfolding in New York. Maybe it was the fact that I had been studying terror attacks for the last 4 years that I didn’t realise gravity of the situation, deciding that night that sleep was my priority given the several days of travel that lay ahead of me. It was not until a few hours later when I woke that I realised the devasting severity of what had just occurred.
The images of the people jumping to their deaths still hurts me to this day.
It was not the graphic violence I was witnessing on the live TV coverage as everyday citizens suffered at the hands of evil. It was the understanding of what it would be like to give up your life for no other reason than to take away the pain. And not the pain of natural sickness or disease, but pain deliberately and maliciously inflicted on you simply because you did not believe what someone else believed.
As a professional soldier, I am accepting of death. After experiencing my share of Afghanistan’s twenty years of recent war, the only thing I now hope is that when my time comes, I either die of old age with a whiskey in my hand, by accident living life to the fullest or by my own choice for a purpose that is bigger than me.
To be in a situation so hopeless you have no option but to end the immediate suffering is a brutality I struggle to accept.
Apart from the horror, what was also unknown on the morning of 12th September 2001 in East Timor, is that this day would mark the beginning of the 20 years of war and sacrifice that lay ahead of us.
While some of my close friends would deploy to Afghanistan just weeks later, my first deployment came the following year in 2002. In total, I would deploy to Afghanistan 5 times, some of my friends, up to 8. For what equated to multiple years of our lives and careers, we performed the duties entrusted to us by the Australian Defence Force and our Political Leaders. The epic moments from those deployments would become permanently imprinted in our brains. The sacrifices by our children and families, getting shot at, blown up and losing friends became a part of life. The acceptance of death showed the commitment we made to our country and the pursuit of the values Australia promoted. We believed in these values and still do. Some of us were so committed we stayed for the full 20 years of that fight, both in serving roles and post service to work with Australia’s public servants, keeping them safe as they advanced Australia’s national interest in Afghanistan; all the while with war raging around us.
I stand by the choices of our leaders in undertaking the mission. Our purpose and intent was moral and just. To fight oppression and help all Afghans to govern themselves free of fear.
In 2001, before the full US invasion, Richard Carlton of 60 Minutes travelled to North Eastern Afghanistan and asked an Australian citizen fighting for the Northern Alliance “Will Australian troops make an iota of difference here?”
Soberingly accurate even today this is his honest reply:
“the fight against terrorism, it’s the responsibility of all nations. And I think the Australian Government, our government in a way, should prevent injustices all over the world.”
As the war continued, we built trust with the Afghan people. As a nation, they gave their support and commitment and were willing to stand up and fight oppression with us. We fought and sacrificed alongside them, we became friends, we trusted each other. We were fighting for freedom together.
One of the things that hurts the most today is the feeling we have betrayed that trust. Thousands of allies and their families abandoned because the fight was no longer politically advantageous.
Humanity is not about helping a friend in order to get something in return.
John F Kennedy once said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
That certainly no longer seems the case under the current US Government. And sadly, it no longer seems to be the case for our country either.
While our Australian news networks share the voice of the Taliban regarding Australian soldiers committing ‘some of the worst and brutal kind of human rights violations’ our leaders are staying conveniently quiet about the fact that Afghanistan is now run by a government that made it their modus-operandi to attack civilians in order to win their war against us.
124 attacks alone in Kabul since 2017 in the form of car, truck and suicide bombs, surrendering ANA soldiers gunned down in the street, citizens dragged from their cars and homes and shot dead, people hung from Blackhawk helicopters, press being beating in Kabul and former US interpreters having their tongues cut out, while the media has the audacity to report on the “toxic culture” of our own troops.
As to why the country surrendered and fell so fast leading to the current crisis, that is a complicated question with an even more complicated answer. Ultimately the US, Australian and allied soldiers fought bravely but failed due to corruption and regional politics; the two things our militaries were not at liberty to solve.
General Sami Sadat said it well when he wrote in the New York Times that Afghan forces had fought bravely over the past two decades of war and that “we were betrayed by politics and presidents.”
With non-existent logistic, medical and offensive fire support to the Afghan National Army, the majority of Afghan soldiers decided to go home and protect their families.
On August 16 this year as the situation unravelled in Kabul, President Biden declared “American troops cannot and should not be fighting and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”
The statistics tell a different story.
41 Australian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014.
2,500 American service members with another almost 4,000 US contractors killed over the duration of the conflict.
66,000 Afghan national military and police killed over the last 20 years.
Clearly this was a nation willing to fight.
In my earliest days serving in Australia’s Defence Force, I learned a trademark military saying that in the end just didn’t seem to apply to Afghanistan.
“We don’t work to a time; we work to a standard”.
Equally as powerful as it turns out was the great Afghan catchcry “You may have the watches, we have the time”
The Taliban were clearly playing the long game. They knew from the outset that patience would ultimately become their greatest weapon.
I will struggle with the events surrounding the fall of Kabul for the rest of my life. We didn’t leave because we were defeated by the Taliban, we gave up because in the eyes of our leaders the mission was taking too long.
We did not invade Afghanistan as the Taliban will now tell us through Australian media. We used military force to liberate an oppressed people, to assist Afghanistan to build a country where they could have freedom. The same freedoms we enjoy.
For the last twenty years we fought for justice and convinced the Afghan people to join us in that fight. Then we walked away when it got hard.
What this means for the Afghan people is sadly more suffering. Engaging in an endless fight to protect their tribes and families. Unfortunately, not only have our governments betrayed their trust by walking away, but we have unintentionally rearmed our enemy as we did.
War can be both a thrill and horrible nightmare. It is not black and white; it exists in the grey. It requires both sacrifice and enduring commitment.
I believed in what I fought for and still do. I am proud of my service and the service of the people I fought alongside. They should be proud of their service too.
If we have the capacity, we should willingly do it again.
Never more true are the words of Australian Defence Force leader, Lt Gen David Morrison (Chief of Army 2011 – 2015 and 2016 Australian on the Year) “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. The Taliban standard I cannot accept. As a nation we should not accept it either.
It is time to learn from our mistakes. To let values not politics guide our actions.
Because freedom and humanity will always be worth fighting for.
I yesterday read the article by Mark Willacy and Josh Robertson titled “Inside the drinking culture of the SAS”.
Since the beginning of time when nomadic families came together to form tribes for their survival and prosperity, cultures have emerged, those behaviors, values and beliefs that a group accepts, generally without thinking about them.
Waxing lyrical as to ‘the broken, arrogant culture of the SAS, a culture of elitism where the rules did not apply’, the story depicts images of wild parties artfully pieced to song lyrics of James’s ‘Getting away with it’.
To suggest that a song sung in an army boozer was an anthem condoning murder is not only presumptuous but insulting to those who risked their lives on a daily basis.
Combat is a chaotic and complex environment, one that can easily take your life if you’re not on your game. When you work, live and lead in an environment outside your control it creates stress. A beer and a song has more to do with relieving stress and surviving in the lethal chaos of war than breaking any rules.
Every time we flew into Afghanistan we didn’t know if we would be coming home again. Every time we went out the gate to face the enemy, we didn’t know if we would be back; if we would see our wives, children or families again. We were accepting that we might die for our country. The thing we were trying to ‘get away with’ was our lives
An SAS culture did exist, a culture of excellence and it was necessary. So that we could face our enemy suppressing our fear. To do our job and survive, because in a combat zone, defeat can mean you or one of your mates is dead.
To me, these lyrics signify mateship, courage and sacrifice. It represents the mates I fought with and surviving in the messed up world where we lived.
And if you watch Afghanistan on the news today you will see it’s still messed up.
Were errors in judgment made, yes. However as humans, not one of us is without flaws and one of life’s greatest lessons is learning from your experience. And I will proudly play that song on ANZAC day and toast my mates who didn’t ‘get away with it’ for the rest of my life.
While I don’t want to let my current emotion drive my comments, there is one point I want to make. Most Australians can’t comprehend what it’s like to fight a war. What it’s like to accept death and what it’s like go to war against evil.
And that’s a good thing.
So now at a time when it would be easy to stay silent, it is important to find the courage to speak. To share with people the realities of war and the fight against oppression. Without this, we can never learn from our experience and we have lost too much to not gain something.
While we went to Afghanistan to protect our citizens and western values, we were welcomed by, fought alongside and forged friendships with the Afghan people. They embraced our presence and wanted a better life for their people. We fought hard against terror and fear together.
There are a lot of diggers and Australian Veterans today feeling as though they have failed, that it was all for nothing.
I don’t think that’s the case.
While we didn’t achieve the mission in our imposed timeframe, we never failed in our commitment to help the Afghans realise freedom.
I believed in what I fought for and still do. I am proud of my service and the service of the people I fought alongside. They should be proud of their service too.
For the last twenty years we fought for the ultimate human right… freedom.
If we have the capacity, we should willingly do it again.
We should never give up the fight for justice of our fellow man.
To fight terror and make the world a better place.
Where Afghanistan goes from here will be up to the Taliban and the Afghan people. Their current and emerging leaders.
My thoughts are with them in these dark moments. I hope that they will find peace very soon.
“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear” Aung San Suu Kyi
It has been well documented that at its most primal level our biggest human fears are fear of rejection and loneliness, fear of failure, and fear of death. Clearly, it’s the last one that has dominated our country over the last two years, so strongly in fact that it has caused us to push aside the others.
So why is it everyone so afraid of the current COVID-19 pandemic? So afraid that governments would close all borders and obstruct citizens returning home, prohibit children going to school and stop people from going to work.
It’s simple. Our leadership, media and health experts have used and spread fear in order to control the country’s population in the name of safety.
By March 2020, we all knew that COVID would kill and undoubtedly our leaders were right to pause and assess the situation before moving forward as a country. We needed to prepare for the fight against COVID. It was necessary to educate our communities, enhance our public health systems and develop vaccines. What was also needed, but sadly lacking, was to prepare our collective mindset. Given the fear of death is one of our biggest, we needed resilience and compassion for the fight. To come together as a country. Undoubtedly, our mindset should have been a key weapon in the battle against COVID.
But, instead of fighting, we decided to try and hide.
Now 18 months later, our leaders are just realising what some have known for a long time. We can’t beat COVID, and we can’t hide from it. It only needs a small undetected foot hold, and it will spread. Today, almost two years on, some states are still scared and hiding, hoping it magically goes away soon. Still our only weapons to fight COVID are lockdowns and vaccines and we know both won’t go close to saving all lives. Even if our vaccines were 100% effective now, they won’t be next year when there is a new, possibly more deadly strain.
The end result of all this hiding?
More division, hate and fear than ever before in this country.
How much has been achieved by all we have endured over the last 18 months and continue to endure today? Is the false illusion of safety worth the re-prioritisation of our country’s values? Does the transfer of responsibility for personal safety from the individual to the government make us safer in the long term? And if it does, is the improvement worth the cost to Australia’s principal value of “respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual”?
The use of fear has become so commonplace we no longer even recognise we are afraid.
Our leaders know we desire safety. “Thanks for keeping me safe Premier” we read and hear regularly. Approval ratings have never been higher while we continue to hide from COVID with quarantine’s, lockdowns and borders closures. There is open public angry at “those people putting us at risk”. All the while, our country goes deeper and deeper into debt.
All with no real plan. Just a hope. That we can save every life.
Unfortunately we cannot.
And not only can we not save every life, it also shouldn’t be our top priority. Our priority should be our countries values, beliefs, and principles. The very thing that makes us all Australian.
It’s time to fight to save our culture. Our countries soul. Because left uncontrolled, these fears will lead to regret and regret can devastate our lives.
So how do we overcome these fears?
We accept we are afraid, and we move forward.
I have had to overcome many fears in my life, including the fear of death. And never have I overcome fear by pretending I could hide from it or avoid it. I have only ever overcome fear by acknowledging it. To face it and make a truce a with it. I accept that it is a part of me, and I allow myself to live my best life with it. To keep the fear in my head and out of my heart and soul.
What we need now is to overcome the fear of death in order to be able to live. I would rather live a short life full of adventure, experience, purpose and passion than a long one void of freedom and filled with ‘what if’s’.
It’s with this in mind, I declare that I won’t let your fear control me. I will continue to live so that my encounter with death, whenever it might come, will not be accompanied by regret.
This has never been more important than in our current climate. Despite twelve weeks now spent isolated in quarantines, not being allowed to travel to see my family, my life is still good. And I continue to work to make it better.
At a time when people feel their lives are on pause; waiting for their next holiday, for lockdown to finish, or my personal favourite, to ‘get their freedom’s back’; I am continuing to live. To move forward and improve.
Recently Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated, “It’s time to give Australians their lives back. We’ve saved lives. We’ve saved livelihoods but we must work together to ensure that Australians can reclaim the lives that they once had in this country” My reply to Mr Morrison, I never gave you my life and it is not yours to give back. While you have prolonged some lives you have not saved them. The only way to save a life is to make sure it is not squandered. That it is not lived in fear, trying desperately to prolong it while hiding from all danger. Dealing with our fears and accepting some risk is a natural part of life. We know we can’t live longer so it goes without saying we should try to live better. With purpose, passion and void of regret.
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” Marcus Aurelius
12 months ago in France, I wrote a blog called “Courage circa 1918”. As I recently hiked the Kokoda track I was reminded of this story about Walter Brown and the traits Aussie soldiers on the track had in common with the ANZAC’s in the trenches.
While the Western Front in World War One and the hot jungles of Papua New Guinea were very different places; it was sobering to consider the similarities in the ANZAC’s that fought at each place. At the Isurava Memorial today the four words courage, endurance, mateship, and sacrifice are etched into stone and they absolutely sum up both generations of Diggers. It was these four words and the story of Corporal Charlie McCallum that kept coming back to me as I walked the track.
I first read about Charlie McCallum the night before I started the trek across Kokoda and was privileged to walk the ground he did. Charlie was a magnificent example of not just courage but also endurance, mateship, and sacrifice. His story is worth telling again, as he is a true Australian hero.
VX15241 Corporal Charlie Reginald McCallum As the battle of Isurava on the Kokoda Track and the fighting with the Japanese intensified on the 29 August 1942, the order was given for the 2/14 Infantry Battalion to withdraw. The Japanese had attacked with such ferocity, 12 Platoon, B Company became overwhelmed and to break contact from the Japanese would have certainly meant taking many casualties.
It was in these frantic moments that a wounded Corporal Charlie McCallum took the initiative and put it all on the line for his mates. Calmly standing his ground, with a Bren gun in his right hand and a Thompson sub-machine gun from a wounded friend in the other, Charlie singlehandedly defended the Platoon position against waves of advancing enemy soldiers while his mates safely withdrew.
I read that in the heat of battle, an extraordinarily calm Charles was changing magazines on the Bren gun while fighting with the Thompson and at one point the enemy got so close that a Japanese soldier pulled a piece of equipment of his belt. When his Platoon retired to safety and he himself fell back; it is said that up to 40 enemy soldiers lay in front of him on the battlefield.
Although recommended for a Victoria Cross for his courage in the face of the enemy, Charles received a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). It is said that this was only because Private Bruce Kingsbury, also from the 2/14 Battalion was awarded a VC for bravery and the higher command did not want to award two in the same battle.
Charlie McCallum’s citation reads: ‘At all times in action, McCallum was admirably calm and steady. On this occasion, his utter disregard for his own safety and his example of devotion to duty and magnificent courage was an inspiration to all our troops in the area. His gallant stand and the number of casualties he alone inflicted checked the enemy’s advance and allowed the withdrawal to proceed unhindered and without loss’. It is hard to comprehend the bravery Charlie displayed and inspired in those around him on the Track. It is also clear that the courage Charlie displayed at Isurava was not a single event. On the 8 September 1942, just one week later, at Brigade Hill, Charlie McCallum was killed in action.
Day 1 – Port Moresby flight to Kokoda. Kokoda trek to Hoi.
As the team gathered in Port Moresby before the trek you could feel the anticipation to get started. It was a feeling that came from being faced with a challenge, one that stood in the way of reaching a goal that had been set a while ago; but unfortunately, the wait to get started would be prolonged due to a lost bag on a flight into PNG.
The goal for most was to complete the Kokoda Track and it would be tackled from north to south. That meant a day one flight from Port Moresby to Kokoda Village. After recovering the lost bag the whole team finally married up at Kokoda just after midday. We took time for a first introduction into the battlefields with stories of the Australian Maroubra Force fighting at Kokoda. For some members of the team, it meant the realisation of where they were and the location’s significance in Australian military history. We were trekking Kokoda, and the reminder from the lead guide Cam, “You’re here, you’re doing it”, was a good prompt to live in the moment. His comment was aimed at the first time trekkers but the experienced veterans in the group understood its importance as well.
Due to the late start, the first day went quick and after a mostly flat 8km hike out of Kokoda; the light was fading as the team set up tents in Hoi. Our first night stop had been reached and for some members of the team, it was their first experience of real tropical jungle.
Day 2 – Hoi to Isurava Guest Houst. 14km trek & 1400m up.
Day two started early and we quickly noticed it was a shock to the system for some trekkers. Up at 05:00 it felt very military as all the tents and gear got packed away and breakfast was well underway by first light. For some it had been a long night, not used to the jungle noises, heat and sleeping mats; for others, we were glad to be out of phone coverage and away from the office. Regardless of how you woke up, as we started the mornings climb from Hoi up to Deniki, everyone was now fully aware of what they had committed to and what the next 8 days would bring.
The day went to plan with the team even making up ground that had been lost the day before due to the late start. The challenge for the morning was the 1400m climb up to Isurava in the heat.
Writing this now, ten days after the team visited the Kokoda memorial, it is hard to put into words the atmosphere at Isurava. After learning more about the local PNG porters throughout the morning, it was amazing to listen to them sing at a service to the fallen soldiers from the battle in 1942. We now know the genuine real concern the porters have for trekkers entrusted into their care and this made their songs at the service even more special. It gave us a small understanding of the “Fuzzy Wuzzys” that cared for and curried the Australian diggers to safety once they were wounded in the fighting during the campaign. Throughout the service, our group read poems and stories of bravery from the battle there. Stories of Aussie soldiers like Private Bruce Kingbury VC and Corporal Charlie McCallum DCM were moving and after the service, it was very special to visit the location where Bruce had sacrificed his life for his mates.
It was also a special moment for everyone to be witness to members of our group (family) as they remembered their grandfather who had been mates with Bruce. He had fought alongside him, survived the war and only very recently passed away. It was a very special moment and one that will not easily be forgotten.
Buy last light on day two, as the team set up camp at the Isurava Guest House, everyone was tired. A hot meal prepared by the porters was had and most trekkers headed off to their tents early to contemplate the day they had just experienced and get ready for the next one.
The statement was made today by our lead guide Cam that; “There are only three ways to go from here. Forward, backward and up. Be aware, the up direction is very expensive.”
I liked this statement and feel it’s a simple explanation of options but really when it comes down to it, you only have one option. Get past the point of no return in your head and move forward towards the finish.
Courage, Endurance, Mateship, Sacrifice.
Day three required our team to separated and achieve different goals. Our small breakaway group wanted to assist one of our members to see where a forefather of his had served on the track. He knew it was around the Abuari waterfall and that meant taking a few local guides to show us the way. We needed to find the waterfall and make it back to the main group by last light.
Setting out at 0630 we departed Isurava night camp and made our way swiftly to Alola. Stopping briefly in the village to see some relics of the war, we quickly set out again, downhill, towards the Eora Creek crossing on the way to Abuari. Even though it was day three and we had seen a bit of the track already, the trek across the valley was challenging. After a few hours of climbing down, crossing the river and climbing back up again; we finally made it to the vicinity. Dropping our packs and taking only essential gear, we set off and found the Abuari waterfall a few kilometers down a very small sidetrack. It was impressive. We will share more of the story behind the waterfall in a future post.
After a further climb up to the village of Abuari we had a break then set off towards the village of Eora Creek and the main Kokoda Track crossing point. The hike along the eastern side of the valley was good and it was noticeable that it saw fewer trekkers.
After reaching Eora Creek Village we knew from talking to the locals that we were only an hour behind the main group so after a short rest we set off again up the sharp spur towards our night location at Templetons Crossing. We found it amazing to see, after all this time, fighting pits as we climbed the spur; and the ammo cache was even more impressive after over 75 years. (See photos)
Arriving at Templetons Crossing were the main group were setting up camp was a relief. It had been a long day trekking over 20 km through the jungle and not a lot of it was flat. We had found the waterfall at Abuari and we needed food and rest. On the track, we had learned that the war was always around you as you hiked; Templetons Crossing was no different. That even we paid our respects to the graves there and thought of how different it must have been in 1942.
Day four was another big day for our team on the Kokoda track and due to some more sub-goals for members our team seperated again. Most of us headed directly from Templetons Crossing towards the Bomber Camp, which was about the days halfway; while a small breakaway group had the goal of trekking the extra distance and going via Myola before lunch.
The morning took our smaller group over the highest point in the track we had hiked, well over 2000 meter above sea level and through some of the most remarkable tropical rain forest you would ever see. Trekking along the track past Dump 1 and the Kokoda Gap, we didn’t find the mist or rain annoying at all; in fact, we felt it added to the experience.
Myola was an amazing natural clearing and was well worth the extra trek. During the war, it had been used as a resupply location for our troops and at the time, stores had just been kicked out the back of low flying planes. It was after that point, we started to climb down towards the Bomber Camp and we started to notice the rain coming down heavier and heavier.
A short lunch and an inspection of the crater completed, we set off through the wet jungle again to get to our night camp location at Naduri.
Day four ended with our group covering over 22km and climbing up and down over 1600 meters.
We hit the halfway point on the trek and I had noticed an increase in local activity. As well as the communities being bigger, the locals were moving about, busy with their day to day lives.
Day 5 started at Nauri and after a long climb down and back up again, we stopped at the village of Efogi 2. Being the midpoint of the trek, Efogi 2 was the location our Porters resupplied with food that they had prepositioned earlier. It was great to pause at the markets to buy fresh fruit and we meet some of the locals from the village. While talking to the locals along the track you learn how much they rely on the hikers for their income. There are small markets everywhere and kids will often run out and set up a shop in front of you with soft-drinks and chips when you stop. With the profits from souvenirs, food and camp-style accommodation the local families will often send their children to school or college.
From Efogi 2 our team trekked down to the main village of Efogi, here we visited a World War Two museum and spoke to the locals again before trekking on towards Mission Ridge and Brigade Hill.
Mission Ridge and Brigade Hill, like Isurava, was the location of a large battle between the Australian Diggers and Japanese forces. We took time at the memorial there to hold a service, remember the sacrifice of the Australian Diggers and share stories on the battle we had read about. The whole team found Brigade Hill to be a moving place and for many, walking the ground of the battle was one of the highlights of the Kokoda Track.
After Mission Ridge we headed off south downhill for a long time and before climbing up to our night camp at Menari; we took the time to go for a swim in the river there. With a total distance for day five being 18.5Km, we had climbed up 1000 meters and trekked down 1700 meters over the day.
Rain, Mud, Rivers, Swamp, Mist and Jungle
Day Six reminded us of the old saying “if you can operate in the jungle, you can operate anywhere”.
From the start of the day, as we put on wet clothes from the day before, life was a little hard. After a few days of rain, it was now hard to get dry. As well as the rain, today we contended with the mud, river crossings, and swamps.
Being just over the halfway point of the trek we had our planned half day of trekking and an afternoon rest. Day six we started in Menari, then after crossing the rivers and swamps around Agulogo we ended the days in Nauro. It was an early pm finish after 11km and a total since we started on the Kokoda Track of 93km completed. Due to the water and rain, the photos were not the best on day six; but that’s all part of the attraction for us.
While day seven was a big day for stories about the fighting in 1942. The day started in New Nauro and went past Ofi Creek before finishing up in Loribaiwa Village. The area saw a lot of fighting during the war, patrolling and ambushing in front of the Australian lines as they withdrew was common practice. There were also many stores of the Japanese supply lines getting stretched beyond breaking point and the Japanese soldiers starting to starve. There were many fighting positions from both sides to inspect and it is amazing to still be able to walk in the positions that marked the extent of the Japanese push south.
It is funny that on day 8, closing towards the southern end of the Kokoda Track, we would get our first sunshine since about day 3. It was a welcome change but it didn’t mean we were staying dry. We had a lot of creek crossings to go.
Departing Loribaiwa and walking to Imita Ridge was one of the highlights for the day. Not only were we crossing ground that had witnessed its share of fighting between the Japanese and Australians but we had crossed the most southern point that the Japanese advance had held and the last point that Australia would fall back to.
After discussing military tactics on Imita Ridge we crossed many creeks to get to our night location at Goldie River. The water didn’t worry us and the rain forest was spectacular.
It was good to get to Goldie River in time to have a swim we were now only about an hour from Owers Corner and the end of the Track was in sight.
Day eights distance of 14 km added to the total and made the trek 120km in distance so far.
Our last day on the Track was short, but that was fine. One last swim in a jungle river, the day before, was great and the last night in my tent I slept like a log.
Waking up early everyone was excited. We only had a few kilometres walking and we would be finished. The first obstacle of the day was 100 meters from our campsite, the Goldie River, and after crossing it we had a short climb to the finish.
Before crossing under the Rising Sun at Owerns Corner, and while listening to our local porters sing as they had done many times on the track, I stopped and took the time to look back over the Owen Stanley Ranges and where I had come from. The Track had been an awesome adventure for both experienced hikers and beginners alike. Some had struggled and overcome great personal challenges while for others, the more practiced in these conditions, had found it tough but the hiking not to difficult. Regardless, everyone was proud of what they had achieved and honoured by what those who had come before us had done on our behalf.
When you go home tell them of us and say
“For your tomorrow we gave our today”
18 July 2019
Kokoda. Just finishing the track today. A tough 125km in the jungle with plenty of rain and mud but is a great experience.
Is it just me or are we now living in a society that seems to indulge itself in easy. We glamourise talent, give our kids awards just for participating, want everything to come naturally and believe a good life is one that is all just smooth sailing.
But I don’t agree. When you seek out easy, you build no immunity to hardship. You only have to watch the nightly news to see you cannot control everything, that in life hardship occurs and you need to be able to deal with it.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t read about a struggling veteran, homeless or without purpose in life. It’s not that I don’t think their struggle isn’t real. I know full well the obstacles they have faced. Mistakes on the battlefield, injury, divorce, separation from my children and financial hardship. I’ve faced them too.
The difference? I focus on developing from a life of hardship and I simply refuse to let difficulty beat me.
Maybe its sheer stubbornness and tenacity. If I get knocked down nine times, I will get up ten. Maybe it was engrained into me during my Special Forces training with a culture of not being afraid of failure and endless hours of deliberate practice. Maybe it is my “post traumatic growth” the experts talk about. Maybe I strive to make the most out of life because I have witnessed adversity firsthand? Maybe it’s all of the above.
I know I have made mistakes that almost got me killed and I believe I have avoided death a few times. Saddling up and getting out there when you know it could kill you regardless of how good your performance is makes you accept the things outside your control. And while that includes accepting death, it also means valuing life. Fear for your life over a prolonged time period like a combat veteran does and you gain a calm awareness that allows you to fully commit to each day. You develop a drive and motivation to train, learn, gain experience and improve.
The point is,
In life, it’s not how you succeed, it’s how you fail. No matter how skilled or seasoned or resilient, life will sometimes fight you and try to defeat you. When you have setbacks or failures do not overreact. Do not let them throw you off course and destroy your optimism. Remove the emotion, step back and evaluate. Find the lesson and learn from the experience. Actively strive to improve yourself and your situation. And have fun while you do it.
To quote one of my favourite sayings: “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one” – Bruce Lee