‘NUMBER 9’

March 26, 2009

24-year-old Corporal Mathew Hopkins will never know he is the ninth Australian soldier to die in Australia’s War against terrorism – Afghanistan. As accolades or personal recognition goes, it not the sort of thing you’d set out to achieve. Remembered as Number 9.

CPL Mathew Hopkins

CPL Mathew Hopkins

I met Mathew Hopkins three years ago during a farewell barbeque at Robertson Barracks in Darwin. Then a Private and 21 years old he was preparing for his first tour of Afghanistan with the Reconstruction Task Force 1 (RTF1). During the interview Mathew was positive, laughing with his mates, eager and happy to be going overseas to fight for his country.

Mathew gave the standard Department Of Defence response when asked if he was concerned about the dangers in Afghanistan – “We’re well trained, have the best equipment and looking forward to going over there and doing the job”, he said. (Page 7 of the Public Affairs Officer’s handbook).

Looking back at that interview recently, I could tell he was yet to meet his wife Victoria. He had that happiness and carefree attitude of youth. But, when I recently looked at the photos of Mathew on patrol in Afghanistan released by the DOD – I could see the youth had grown into a man.

Soldiers know the risk when they sign up. The risk is death. No one forces you to join the Australian Army, there is no conscription, you join up because you want to fight. Unlike the United States Army, Air Force or Marines – Australian soldiers can choose not to go to Afghanistan. Sure it wouldn’t be a good career move, your Unit ships out and you choose to stay behind. I suppose the reasoning from a DOD point of view is they only want people there who want to go. That policy could change though – as Australia is certain to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan and to sustain those numbers (a Brigade size, upward of 1000 troops) it may be a case of .. ‘You are going, like it or not’.

The true tragedy of Mathew Hopkins’ death is those he’s left behind. A month old

CPL Mathew Hopkins holding his son Alex

CPL Mathew Hopkins holding his son Alex

 baby boy he got to hold for only four days. Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull referred to Mathew’s son Alexander – saying in effect, ‘the Country must not forget his little boy who’ll now live life without his biological father’, during a speech before question time when the Lower House of Parliament held a minutes silence to mark Mathew’s death. Paying tribute to Number 9, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd justified Mathew’s death as part of the war on terror – ‘since 2000’ he said, ‘more than 100 innocent Australian’s have been killed by terrorists who were trained by Al Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan’.

Both men are right. But, one couldn’t help see the colour of politics smudged in their words. Turnbull – in Opposition and no power to change Government policy towards the ‘good war Afghanistan’ stated the obvious .. Hopkins’ family must not be forgotten or endure preventable financial hardship. While Rudd – aware the fighting season has began, anticipating more casualties and likely to double Australia’s troop number in Afghanistan in the near future, felt the need to justify why Australia is fighting in Afghanistan.     

A senior Australian Army Officer told me over a beer once – he was ‘more worried about Afghanistan than Iraq’. It seemed odd at the time, as there were hundreds being killed by car bombs every month in Iraq. He said simply, ‘(Iraq) they’ll get it together, it may take 20 years but they’ll be okay – there is infrastructure. Afghanistan is a different story, there is nothing there’.

 

7RAR Soldiers carry CPL Hopkins' casket, Afghanistan

7RAR Soldiers carry CPL Hopkins' casket, Afghanistan

This is Rudd’s political dilemma – at what number does the loss of Australian soldiers (now at ten), out weigh the Australian public’s stomach for the war in Afghanistan. At what number does it become Rudd’s electoral defeat. Canada has lost more than 100 soldiers to the war, Britain and the United States even more. Up until now, the majority of Aussie troops have been re-building Afghanistan, undertaking small community construction projects. Now they are ‘taking the fight to the enemy’, fighting alongside Afghan National Army soldiers and our casualty figures are reflecting this increased danger.

Military friends say we have been very very lucky in Afghanistan – but add, “we’re only one roadside bomb away from having a very bad day.” Last Monday was a bad day for Corporal Mathew Hopkins, the soldiers on patrol with him, his wife, baby boy, his family and the mates that will never get to see him grow old.  

We’ve signed up for the war in Afghanistan – and it would be a naive Australian who didn’t share the view there are going to be many more bad days ahead. Pick a number.  

(photos courtesy of the Australian Department Of Defence website http://www.defence.gov.au

(2006 interview courtesy Channel Nine News Australia)

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‘TOO YOUNG’

March 19, 2009

 

When a person passes away aged in the 80’s – it’s often said they had a good innings. But when a child or teenager dies, death becomes about the cruel lost opportunity or the loss of hope for the future. 
I’ve recently covered the death of three kids whose innings was cut short. All the deaths were preventable accidents, each tragic in their own personal way. A teenage girl killed by a friend driving drunk, a teenage boy drowned in a flooded creek and the last – an 11 year old girl attacked by a three metre saltwater crocodile while swimming with friends.   

11 year old - Briony Goodsell

11 year old - Briony Goodsell

Looking at their photographs – they’re beautiful kids and just that ..kids! They made choices clear thinking adults wouldn’t think twice about. When told an 11 year old girl had been taken by a crocodile, listening to the six am radio news, I thought how could that occur? ‘Tragic Misadventure’.

BrionyGoodsell should never have been inside the Black Jungle Swamp nature reserve, swimming with her 7 year old sister, girlfriend 10 and a boy 12. But, kids will be kids. They were just having fun.

 

 

Anyone who has lived in the Northern Territory knows an encounter with a saltwater crocodile is likely 99% fatal. At every Top End boat ramp crocodile signswarn of the danger. Oozing mystery – up close crocodiles are fascinating creatures, able to hold their breath underwater for hours – the saltie, a pre-austric killing machine is an Abrams tank! Like the Abrams’ ability to run on a variety of fuels ..asaltie can live in fresh or salt water – that’s what makes it so dangerous. Briony Goodsell didn’t stand a chance.

When the search began to try and locate her – police called in the best of the best. Tommy Nichols. A Parks and Wildlife ranger and when it comes to crocs, he has first hand experience what a saltie can do – literally. Tommy’s left hand was mauled by a saltwater crocodile years ago, a thumb and index finger is all that’s left.

Six hours into the search – 450 meters down stream they found several pieces of Briony. Tommy told the Tactical Response officers, that’s it .. don’t expect to find anymore. Intuition and experience said the saltie had moved on. The reptile didn’t care Briony’s mother was in a near-by house waiting for news of a miracle.

“Kids are always crossing boundaries – it’s part of growing up, unfortunately this crossing the boundary is quite unforgiving” .. is how Crocodile expert Professor Graeme Webb described Briony’s death. Kids being kids.

Charlene O'Sullivan with her two girls

Charlene O'Sullivan with her two girls

Just as cruel as the loss of her child, Charlene O’Sullivan has to deal with the knowledge the crocodile responsible for her childs attack will never be found. Estimated to be three metres in length – it has slipped, swam and crawled its way down stream to the Adelaide River system, where 100’s of saltwater crocodiles call home.

And even with Tommy’s expertise – he admits “To be perfectly honest .. all three meter croc’s look the same .. I couldn’t guarantee that we’d get the correct crocodile”.

Nature being nature .. who knows what fate awaits the killer crocodile in the wild – just as fate chose it was time for Briony and the two other kids.

(Photographs courtesy Charlene O’Sullivan)

 

(Footage courtesy National Nine News, Darwin)


‘PAYBACK’

March 9, 2009

Is a wife who cheats on an unfaithful husband worse than him? Does it make them both now equal? Or is it ‘payback’ and the final breakdown of a once loving relationship.

Recently asked this question, I don’t think there is a simple answer.

Why did he cheat in the first place? Is it because he’s a public figure, in a position of power and ‘opportunities’ presented themselves. Some how in his mind this made it okay. Should society feel sorry from him, now he is the victim and humiliated. Did society know of her heartbreaking pain.

 I suggest it’s a private issue between a husband and wife.

What good would it do for the husband to seek revenge against the ‘other’ man – poisoning his career prospects with a company, by revealing the affair to a senior manager. A bit childish.

I doubt she would have cheated – or ‘looked’ at the ‘other’ man had she not been a victim.

Hillary Clinton suffered the greatest public humiliation – when confronted by Bill’s unfaithfulness. I’ll never forget that walk across the White House lawn to an awaiting helicopter. Chelsey in the middle holding hands with Mum while Bill held the dog Buddy’s leach. They got on with life, well publicly anyway. Hillary showed great strength and if their marriage is ‘true’ – it shows unfaithfulness can be overcome. What was her ‘payback’ .. a US Senate seat, US Presidential candidacy and now the US Secretary of State? Once again, it’s a matter between the husband and wife.

A close friend once told me she had a pact with her boyfriend not to tell the other if either had an affair. They’re no longer together.

I subscribe to the Robert Redford character’s approach to love in the movie ‘Out Of Africa’. Romantically involved with the married Merryl Streep character, Redford describes two lions as having it right when it comes to love – ‘the male lion says to the female lion – I like you, you like me .. simple uncomplicated’. Unfortunately, what works in the wild doesn’t work in the City.

Redford’s character was floored too. He would disappear in his plane, making up an excuse to escape the chains of commitment for a few days. Maybe this is why every man should have a shed in his backyard!

No one is perfect – neither the one who cheats or the other man or woman. We’re human and humans make mistakes. But, I did come up with one answer – stop and consider if the ‘payback’ is worth the price, next time you’re thinking about pulling on a rain coat and doing the ‘wild thing’.


‘EASY RIDER’

March 4, 2009

 

'Saigon's On Two Wheels'

'Saigon's On Two Wheels'

If you saw the movie ‘Bucket List’ starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, you’ll know what I’m blogging about .. ‘things to do before you die!’ It can be an endless list – but there is no prize for having more or less, the best thing about it is – it’s ‘up to you’.

 I’ve just filled another on my list – riding a motorbike around Saigon (that’s Ho Chi Minh City if you’re from the North). I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t daunted at the prospect of racing along Saigon’s streets surrounded by 10’s of thousands of fellow riders with little more than a horn, blinkers, acceleration, anticipation – all held together by an eight dollar helmet for survival.

The Eight Dollar Helmet

The Eight Dollar Helmet

Having done the self-taught method of learning to drive a car on my parents farm courtesy of a 1966 FB Holden (a three speed colloumn shift or ‘three on the tree’), then studied the art of flooring it on LA’s 10 freeway on-ramps to not look like a tourist – Saigon with it’s noise and flooded river traffic flow is something to be enjoyed.

Even if you’ve done Bali or Phuket on a scooter – it doesn’t quite prepare you

The Masked Bandits

The Masked Bandits

for that moment heading into a four-way intersection at 40 kilometers an hour and you find yourself staring at someone else doing the same thing – only problem is he or her is coming straight at you! Unlike driving in New York where size matters and you have to stake out your territory, the best advice in Saigon is – go with the flow. You become a mind reader, asking yourself – Where is he going? Do I have enough time to get in front of that truck? Is the footpath moving faster than the street? As well, you grow eyes out the side of your head.

Red lights and even green lights for that matter are usually only obeyed in District One or when a traffic cops is about – I’m told bikes are automatically impounded for a month for the smallest road in faction.

'I'll be there in 10'

'I'll be there in 10'

But, what is a road in fraction in Saigon? Riding while talking on a mobile phone, no worries if the person on the other end can hear you. Guide books talk about the American War Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s house or the Cu Chi Tunnels – try the free sightseeing tour just outside you hotel room door. A 125cc family on wheels .. Dad at the front – three kids jammed in the middle and Mum at the back holding on. One of the craziest things I saw was a guy balancing two large wooden doors on his head, while a mate steered at 40 kilometers an hour.

Enterence fee to this museum with no Monday closing is the price of a bike rental. I suggest if you’re going to hit the road, get the fastest and newest bike you can. Pay the extra two dollars a day – it’ll will pay-off on a rural road when you want to accelerate in front of a cattle truck doing 60 Km’s. Stay at home if you think travel insurance is too expensive and buy a helmet. They come in all shapes – US Army, Safari hat, Construction worker – express yourself. 

A Balancing Act At 40 Km's

A Balancing Act At 40 Km's

Try riding at night – the river becomes a different world. The neon lights, bike lights along with the action off the streets make it feel like you’re lining up for the Monaco Grand Prix.

'Grand Prix'

'Grand Prix'

 

Now – if you’ve got the confidence and want to give Saigon a go on two wheels .. Good Luck finding a park!