November 8, 2011

Multimedia journalist Justin O’Brien reports from outside the Los Angeles Criminal Court House on the Doctor Conrad Murray guilty verdict. Dr Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of pop star Michael Jackson in 2009.

Reported, filmed, written and edited by Justin O’Brien.

‘LATIGO @ 158 bpm’

August 21, 2011

Turning 40 is a mile stone birthday we’re told to celebrate and celebrate big.

For my 40th, I decided to spend a week with my best mates in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, my old ‘home’. A week of eating, drinking – did I mention drinking? And riding.

My birthday present to myself was an accent of Latigo Canyon. A 9.2-mile mountain climb I’d ridden many times over the years with my buddies Johnny Smelzer, Michael Kelley and David Lee.

We are all united through a passion or self-torture for road cycling. Hours spent on two wheels, sitting on a pole,peddling, duelling with cars, legs shaved and 40 mile per hour descents protected by an armour of Lycra!

'The Boys' - Johnny Smelzer, David Lee, Justin O'Brien, Michael Kelley

There is something ‘mentally satisfying’ even ‘mystical’ about climbing Latigo Canyon. So on the day of my birthday Johnny and I rolled out with a group of cyclists and set off up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) towards Malibu and 40 minutes to the Latigo turn off.

“9.2 miles of just sheer hell”, is how Michael Kelley describes Latigo.

Michael is the ‘fastest’ out of the four of us – followed closely by David Lee. “It is a great climb, it’s like a Tour de France climb .. Minus the French crowds lining the road, spitting on you!”, says Michael cracking a smile.

I’ll never compete in the Tour de France, but climbing Latigo makes you dream you could. It’s steep, alternating from 4.7% and 12% to the summit.

David Lee, who I first met in a spinning studio is a successful working actor and the funniest of our bunch. “It’s a bit of a ball breaker if I must be honest .. It brings out the honest man in you”, David says describing Latigo.

A view of Latigo Canyon, Malibu. California USA

“The first summit is a bit of an illusion because you get up there .. you think you’re there, then you pop around the corner and then there is suddenly another five miles to go and it’s kind of a little disheartening because it kicks up a little bit”, says David.

Most cyclists take between 35 minutes to an hour to climb to Latigo’s second summit. Johnny and I are part of that latter group!

My speedo is a heart rate monitor, the title of this story. 158 bpm – 158 beats per minute. There is no cheating on the road. I know I can push/peddle 158 bpm for an hour, increase it to 170 and I’ll throw up!

After 30 minutes zig zaging our way up Latigo’s bends, Johnny and I climb through the California coastal ‘June Gloom’ and into sunshine. We pass the time chatting, putting-shit-on each other.

A climbing graph of Latigo Canyon, Malibu. California USA

“What ring are ya in Johnny?”, I ask him. “The easiest one I got”, he replies.

“How about you?”

I quickly reply, “I got one gear left.”

“Ah…. You do not!”, Johnny fires back! I laugh and we peddle on.

15 minutes later we’re at Latigo’s second summit sharing a chocolate bar and jam sandwich before the 12 minute descent back to the PCH, then dinner and margarita’s.

It was the great birthday and I wouldn’t have spent it doing anything else!



May 24, 2009


The best way to describe Memorial Day to an Australian – is to say it’s the American version of ANZAC Day without the pub crawl! A time to remember those who have fallen in battle, survived to come home and anyone who has served.

An American Flag

An American Flag

An American tradition on Memorial Day, is to place an American flag at the grave site of past soldiers, sailors and airmen. No small task considering the numbers. At the Military cemetery in Los Angeles an army of volunteers is enlisted to answer the call – usually Scouts, Cubs and Girl Guides.  

From a foreigners point of view – it’s a very powerful and moving sight .. thousands of kids, American flags in hand – following tradition and struggling to push a 50 centimeter long flag into the soil. 

One of the 58 thousand flags placed around the LA National Cemetery

One of the 58 thousand flags placed around the LA National Cemetery

I asked a mother dressed as a Scout Leader why are American’s so patriotic? She replied .. ‘American’s come from everywhere, we believe in what this country stands for  – today is about respect, honor and freedom. Australian’s have fought for freedom .. you are just like us’. I agreed. Although, patriotism seems easier for American’s .. the colour combination of ‘red, white and blue’ lends itself to self promotion – unlike Australia’s ‘green and gold’ and that ‘Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi’ chant which makes me wish I was Canadian!

Back to Memorial Day .. the Mum summed the morning up best in five words that followed our conversation – (referring to her son, hand on his shoulder) ‘.. his father is in Iraq’. You may not agree with the decision .. but you support the troops. 

America is at War – Waring at a level not seen since Vietnam.

Walking around the LA Cemetery and looking at the headstones, one name soon blends into another. Many of the men buried there lived long lives – into their 70’s and 80’s .. they fought for their Country .. and they came home. But, what jumps out

21 years old

21 years old

is the unmistakable difference between a new headstone and an old one. The faded weathered lettering .. compared to the black stenciled look. 

Private First Class Jin Su Ong stood out. Ong an American, born in 1987 was just 21 when he died in Iraq this year. It made me think .. in 1987 I was in College living life and at 21, I was traveling the world. What would you have missed out on if your life had ended at 21? No disrespect to the other veterans .. but Ong lived in my time. 

For all the symbolism of today, most of the Scouts who playfully raced to plant the flags at each headstone are too young to understand the meaning of Memorial Day – that’s a good thing. PFC Jin Su Ong was forced to grow up too early.



'The Scouts'

'The Scouts'


'Flags On Guard'

'Flags On Guard'


April 30, 2009


When I first heard the term ‘Caveat Emptor’ (Buyer Beware) in a business class – I thought ‘cool’ Latin, but having just purchased a second hand Jeep I understand its meaning, in plan English.

         Okay – the 1992 Jeep 4×4 Sport was a bargain. Advertised on ‘Craigslist’ saying it required a new alternator – after a test-drive the Jeep’s owner Daniel Holzman accepted my 12 hundred dollar offer. I returned late the next afternoon, paid his Dad (John) the cash and off I drove into the darkness.

         I got two miles up the road when without warning the radio died, all the lights in the dashboard went out and the engine started to ‘skip’-‘chug’ and ‘stumble’ (It ran great during a test drive the day before).

         Aware I wasn’t going to get far – I started to drive North, hoping to make it to the safer streets of Santa Monica where I could crash park my wounded vehicle. My journey ended 30 blocks later outside an industrial complex at the corner of Olympic and 20th Street.

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

Immediately I called Daniel’s father John to explain what had happened. He said quote: ‘Oh .. no .. I can’t believe that. My son wouldn’t sell you a dud – let me speak to him. I don’t want you out of pocket on this .. I want to make this right!’

         In the darkness, I arranged a tow truck then telephoned Daniel Holzman who is working as a chef in New York. ‘Oh ..’ he said .. ‘my Dad did say the lights looked a little dim when you drove off!’ Daniel offered to take the car back – but I liked the car. Then came the statement of truth (Daniel) ‘I thought you would have at least made it home!’ We came to a verbal agreement to reimburse me for the

The Dints Show Character!

The Dints Show Character!

towing and taxi fare home.

         Carlo’s the tow truck driver arrived an hour later and we dropped the Jeep off at Pep Boys workshop. The repairs came to $500.

The next day I left a message on Daniel’s cell phone, telling him I was now on the road and gave a breakdown of the costs for towing and a taxi. He never called me back. So I telephoned John, his Dad. ‘Oh … I’m not taking money out of my pocket’, he said. ‘It’s an issue between you and Daniel’.

Feeling I had been ‘Somali Pirated’ after recounting down the phone line his commitments made two days before, I slipped into LA mode – ‘something along the lines of how was he going to sleep tonight with a crooked back!’

I didn’t pursue the issue after that. I could use the cash, but any funds reimbursed would have had been tainted – sometimes it’s best just to walk away.

But for what’s worth, I did learn a practical lesson no lecturer could ever teach – Buyer Beware or ‘Caveat Emptor’ for those who speak Latin.


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)


February 18, 2009
US Air Force Band - Palmerston High School

US Air Force Band - Palmerston High School

Hillary Clinton was on ABC’s AM Radio programme this morning, defending why she wouldn’t be visiting Canberra during her first official overseas trip to Asia, as Barack Obama’s Secretry Of State. Without falter, Mrs Clinton immediately launched into the well versed and practiced statement about the US/Australia allience – a marriage between our two countries forged during the unknown days of World War Two.

“We know that Australia is one of our most trusted allies in the world” said Hillary Clinton, “.. and we remain grateful for our work together in the past and what we will do together in the future.”

Hence explains the welcoming mat shown to a seven piece band from the US Air Force at Palmerston High School. “We’re not your typical military band”, an enthusastic keyboardist spokesman Master Sergent Neill Herndon explained: “This is very exciting for us .. as a musical group it’s very exciting for us to get out and play for the younger audiences. We get to play some exciting music, more modern music. We play for a whole lot of different audiences and some of the folks that are older .. we’ll play that kind of music for them. But today, it’s the younger folks music and it’s very exciting.”  

The excitement was catching!

US Air Force Band - Palmerston High School

US Air Force Band - Palmerston High School

Within minutes of the lead male vocalist launching into “Living in America” .. some of the 200 students in the audience were on their feet and dancing to the yanky tunes.

At a time when the US military fills the daily news pages with coverage from Iraq or Afghanistan – the Band leave’s a positive impression of the US in the minds of the several hundred students, who are no doubt enjoying the chance to skip class, at least for half an hour. 

According to MSG Herndon, the Band had to go back to school too:  “We looked up Waltzing Matilda and found out a lot of different words, tucker bag – billabong and those types of things so we’re learning a lot about the culture and it’s wonderful.”

The US Air Force Band visit coinscides with Thursday’s 69th Bombing Of Darwin Ceremony. The exact number is not known – but officially 251 people were killed in the first Japenese bombing raids on the 19th of February, 1942. 91 of the dead were American sailors, onboard the USS Peary docked in Darwin Harbour.

US Air Force Band - Palmerston High School

US Air Force Band - Palmerston High School

So over five days – performing at schools, retirement homes and Royal Darwin Hospital, the Air Force crew are sharing the unspoken bond – a mix of gratitude, understanding, loss and commitment – between Australia and the United States.  Turkey’s leader Mustafa Kemal Attaturk wrote – “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears: your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.” Like the British, Australia, New Zealand, French and other nationalities buried at Gallipoli – the 91 USS Peary sailors entombed in Darwin Harbour – are now treated as Australian’s. Explaining in part the ‘no worries’ and unconditionally welcoming additude shown to this US Air Force Band.