AUSSIE HE­ROES SAV­ING LIVES ON FRONT­LINE

EX­CLU­SIVE 8-PART SE­RIES STARTS TO­DAY

The Gold Coast Bulletin - - FRONT PAGE - KRISTIN SHORTEN SPE­CIAL RE­PORT

THE first rocket-pro­pelled grenade ex­ploded in the air above their heads, send­ing Delta Com­pany duck­ing for cover. The next one dropped right on the Aussie pa­trol, send­ing white-hot shrap­nel in all di­rec­tions.

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” said Cor­po­ral Jeremy Holder, one of a rare breed in the Aus­tralian mil­i­tary, a medic for the spe­cial forces — a fight­ing sol­dier whose first job is to save lives.

Within Aus­tralia’s Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand they’re known as Voodoo Medics and less than two dozen fill this pres­ti­gious role at any one time.

Start­ing to­day, The Daily Tele­graph takes you in­side the se­cret world of this elite squad. In rare in­ter­views with six Voodoo Medics, spe­cial forces op­er­a­tors whose lives de­pend on them, and the fam­i­lies of those they could not save, we ex­pose the hero­ism, tragedy and re­silience of these re­mark­able men.

“They’re the ones we kind of love the most when we need them but the ones we don’t al­ways think about when we don’t need them,” said Vic­to­ria Cross re­cip­i­ent Mark Donaldson, who knows first­hand the value of the medics from his seven tours of Afghanistan. “They’re there to save our lives. There are not many other jobs like them in the mil­i­tary that are so crit­i­cal when that time comes.”

The battle Holder ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Perth in 2006 was far from typ­i­cal — it turned out to be one of the most in­tense dur­ing Aus­tralia’s 11-year war in Afghanistan — but it per­fectly il­lus­trates the role of the Voodoo Medics.

The Syd­ney-based pla­toon from 4th Bat­tal­ion, Royal Aus­tralian Reg­i­ment (now 2nd Com­mando Reg­i­ment), was part of the in­ter­na­tional force clear­ing Tal­iban fight­ers from the Chora Val­ley when an ur­gent ra­dio call came through that US troops nearby were tak­ing heavy fire and needed help. A sergeant was al­ready dead.

But as the Aussies ap­proached, they were am­bushed by in­sur­gents fir­ing rocket-pro­pelled grenades.

“I re­mem­ber the first one burst­ing above us,” Holder said. “We hit the deck. Al-

These guys train to stick their hand in your chest and mas­sage your heart.

Pla­toon com­man­der Bram Con­nolly

most feel­ing like that Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan (scene), where you see the dirt ex­plod­ing around you. That’s ex­actly what it was like.”

He saw his pla­toon sergeant, call sign Bravo, go down first: “I re­mem­ber just look­ing up and see­ing our Bravo say he’s hit and grab his leg.”

Holder, the unit’s only trained medic, rushed for­ward to treat the sergeant. AK-47 au­to­matic ri­fle fire joined the grenades.

As he did, the cry “Kilo!” — his call sign, in­di­cat­ing there was an­other ca­su­alty in need of at­ten­tion — came over the ra­dio. Then it came again. And again. “I re­mem­ber them ask­ing for the Kilo … and then just think­ing: ‘S..., well how many have we got? And how se­ri­ous?’” he said.

Holder crawled and then sprinted be­tween the wounded, gun­fire spit­ting up rocks and dirt around him: “I didn’t re­ally have time to think. I was just work­ing out where I was needed, who needed me.”

By the end of the day, Holder had patched up six Aus­tralian com­man­dos and their Afghan in­ter­preter. He didn’t know it then, but he had also just earned the Medal of Gal­lantry.

The Voodoo Medics se­ries un­packs the ex­pe­ri­ences of six medics who have served in Aus­tralia’s Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand since 2003 — their men­tal health bat­tles, sur­vivor’s guilt and the con­tra­dic­tions of their com­plex roles, which in­cluded help­ing Afghan civil­ians and even en­emy fight­ers.

“It wasn’t un­usual for a ‘kilo’ to carry a mor­tar,” Bram Con­nolly, a for­mer pla­toon com­man­der from 2 Cdo Regt. “You’ve got this guy whose job it is to save the lives of the men he’s with and, at the same time, he’s car­ry­ing a weapon of de­struc­tion that we’re go­ing to use against the en­emy. It’s an in­cred­i­ble role when you think of it like that.”

The medics are ex­pected to meet the same stan­dards as the units with which they serve, though they do not un­dergo the same gru­elling se­lec­tion pro­cesses. Just 5.5 per cent of the medics in the Aus­tralian De­fence Force are posted to Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand. “You for­get that these guys are shoot­ing, mov­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the com­man­dos but re­ally they’re not ac­tu­ally trained for that,” Con­nolly said. “These guys train to stick their hand in your chest and mas­sage your heart. He’s trained to stop your ar­te­rial bleed­ing.”

From los­ing mates in the bat­tle­field to treat­ing hor­rif­i­cally wounded Afghan chil­dren in re­mote sur­gi­cal the­atres, the medics see their job as crit­i­cal.

“It was a re­ally in­ti­mate po­si­tion to hold, to be hon­est, to be that doc­tor or that medic on the ground look­ing after mates of yours in those en­vi­ron­ments,” said Dan Pronk, who deployed with two Spe­cial Forces units — 2 Cdo and the Spe­cial Air Ser­vice Reg­i­ment.

And a vein of dark hu­mour runs through it. The Voodoo Medics motto is a prom­ise to their Spe­cial Forces team­mates: “We’ll do the voodoo so you can do what you do.”

Holder said the hall­mark of a kilo is to “be an as­set, not a li­a­bil­ity” to the elite fight­ers with whom they de­ploy. “Just be good at your job. Don’t be lazy. Don’t be jack, as they say,” he said. “Your job is to make sure that every­one comes home alive. Some­times it doesn’t hap­pen.”

That Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan scene, where you see the dirt ex­plod­ing around you. That‘s ex­actly what it was like. Voodoo Medic Jeremy Holder

Voodoo Medic Cor­po­ral Jeremy Holder pic­tured on the ground in Afghanistan.

Main pic­ture: Gary Ra­m­age

Jeremy Holder clasp­ing his Army dog tags, and (below) Vic­to­ria Cross re­cip­i­ent Mark Donaldson, who has first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the Voodoo Medics’ amaz­ing work.

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