When do you give up on Freedom

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.

(The famous picture taken by Richard Drew of the falling man from the Twin Towers during 9/11 terrorism attack in New York. Photo / AP)

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.

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Kokoda “For your tomorrow we gave our today”

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 3

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 4

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

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 6

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.

Day 7

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 8

Day eights distance of 14 km added to the total and made the trek 120km in distance so far.

Day 9

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.

— in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

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