PRIVATE PAIN OF A TRUE WARRIOR
EXCLUSIVE VICTORIA CROSS HERO REVEALS HOW TWIN TRAGEDIES FORGED HIM INTO ON OF OUR FIERCEST FIGHTERS, WRITER KRISTIN SHORTEN
Mark Donaldson faced bullets and bombs, saw mates killed in battle and famously ran into enemy fire to help a wounded comrade on his multiple tours of Afghanistan. For him, it was all part of the job of being a soldier.
Now, the Victoria Cross recipient has revealed to News Corp Australia that twin family tragedies in his teens helped forge the incredible resilience that helped to make him a hero.
In a candid interview for News’ series Voodoo Medics, Donaldson said the sudden death of his father and his mother’s disappearance and suspected murder a few years later played a part in giving him the mental strength to thrive amid the horror of war.
“I was at peace with (the thought that) my mate could die, my friend could get wounded really badly — and there were many instances where that happened,” Donaldson said. “I was also at peace with the fact that it might happen to me, and they might be the ones standing there, looking over my body, and going ‘gee, that sucked’.
“From my own experience before joining the military and having a few events happen in life — and lots of people do — I learned not to look back on that, not to dwell on those things, because it only holds you back.”
Resilience is a common characteristic among the Voodoo Medics — the name adopted by the unsung heroes in the elite group of medical soldiers who deployed with Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan.
“The level of trauma the medics see, particularly in Afghanistan, from my experience there, is hard to put into words. It’s tremendous,” he said.
Donaldson, 39, spoke frankly about the adolescent turmoil in his teenage years and how it influenced his decisions later in life.
Disaster struck the family when Donaldson was just 15. It was 1995, and his father Greg, a Vietnam veteran, suffered a fatal heart attack.
A few years later Donaldson visited his mother Bernadette for Christmas at her Dorrigo home. It was the last time he saw her.
Four months later, he called her home one morning to learn from a neighbour she had vanished and that there were bloodstains throughout the house. She was 46.
Police suspected murder, but two days later their chief suspect, Christopher Watt — a Bellingen man who was besotted with Ms Donaldson — committed suicide in Brisbane.
“(He) didn’t leave any notes or letters about what had happened or her existence or where she was, and even until this day she’s still missing.”
In 1999, a coroner returned an open verdict after an inquest, unable to decide whether Ms Donaldson was dead or alive. A decade later, a second inquest found Watt had murdered her.
In a bittersweet twist, 2009 was also the year Donaldson became the first Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross in almost four decades.
“The hardest part is, to me, really knowing what happened and really piecing together what happened to her in her final moments. That trauma that she probably faced and that fear that she was under.
“What was she thinking in those final moments? They’re the things I’ll never ever be able to know.
“Probably the other hardest part is having my own children and she’s not around to see them grow up.”
The valour recognised by the VC came on September 2, 2008, when, during a Taliban ambush in Uruzgan province, Corporal Donaldson sprinted over 80 metres of open ground under heavy fire to scoop up an Afghan interpreter and carry him to safety. Donaldson puts his resilience down in part to experiencing every child’s worst fear.
“I believe the deaths of my parents had an element in transforming me into the attitude, mindset, perspective that I take to these challenges and opportunities.”
The loss of his mother in particular taught Donaldson about “the choice to be a victim of what had just happened or to be a product of what had just happened”.
“It definitely changed my opinion on what hard is or what tragedy is or what resilience is,” he said.
Two decades of hindsight have also taught him that having to face tough challenges at an early age had some positive results.
“In one aspect I was parentless. The silver lining for me around that was it forced me to figure it out. There was no reliance on anyone else. There was no crutch. There was no fallback.”
He had to sink or swim. “I certainly sunk for a little while although I managed to get my head back above water at some stage to move through it.”
He also realised that without parents to influence him, he could “do whatever I wanted”.
“My thought process was this is a gift. This is a gift of strength. This is a gift of power. This is a gift of resilience,” he said.
“If I can deal with this then I should be able to deal with anything.
“It’s that mindset and attitude that you bring to it that will shape the way you move forward.”
That grit galvanised him through the gruelling SAS Regiment’s selection course, just 15 months after joining the army.
“For me that’s what resilience is. It’s not so much weathering a storm. It’s going ‘OK, have we been here before? What can I draw on? What strength have I got to get through these things?’
“Everyone has some sort of tragic event or something that’s difficult in their life.
“It about how you deal with it, use it and move forward.”
The matter-of-fact way the father-of-two approaches adversity offers an insight into what made him an effective Special Operator — a term widely used for a special forces soldiers.
“I don’t leave any photos around or keep photos of them around the place,” he said about his parents.
“It’s not that I don’t want to remember them. But the way I see it that’s just a constant reminder of what’s not there.
“For me that’s just holding me back. I don’t need to be reminded that they’re not there. I know they’re not there.”
His striking nonsentimentality may appear at odds with his kind nature, but his attitude is common among the special forces.
For now, Donaldson is focused on making up for the time he lost with his family while serving in the military.
“Right now my focus to the future is getting my own house in order, looking after my own family,” he said.
“What’s happened has happened. It’s done. They’re not coming back. They’re not around.
“If she turns up one day then great, we can give her a proper burial, but until then there’s life to live.”
Donaldson receiving his VC from the Governor-General in 2009, and (left) in Afghanistan after a mission in 2012. Mark Donaldson with his mum Bernadette and brother Brent, and his father Greg (left).