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)