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

Balonne Beacon - - VOODOO MEDICS -

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).

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