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 think it was probably about 8 years ago, after getting out of the military, that I posted on social media for the first time a picture I took. I wasn’t even in it. After a career where you are told to keep a low profile and it was frowned upon to talk about yourself in public and share stories; to say I was out of my comfort zone on social media speaking to the public is an understatement.
Today, I understand the importance of storytelling. Not just for our military, but also for the public, our private sector teams and the country. If we remember our values and our intentions remain good, our stories, both good and bad, will help us evolve for the better. They will help us improve who we are and what we stand for.
I’m still nervous when I post my photos but I find purpose in inspiring others to live life fully; so I will just have to get over my nerves.
When was the last time you shared a story; and experience you learnt something from? Try it with your partner, family or friends. Tell a story. One that means something to you even if you find it uncomfortable telling it. A first hand story from your experience and not one you have just read or heard. They are powerful moments. The benefits are many and you will be glad you did.
Attached photos from contracting in Kabul, Afghanistan.
I don’t have a lot of photos from Afghanistan I can share, and even the ones I do have and can share, are personally difficult. In the end we failed and were unable to defeat our enemy there. Despite our combat superiority the enemy were more adaptive and ruthless than we gave them credit for. But for me, I personally am a better person for having served there and attempting to bring freedom to Aghanistan’s good people. The experiences I’ve had and the knowledge I’ve gained is worth sharing.
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