Mark Donaldson doesn’t see himself as a hero. But on 2 September 2008, the then Trooper Mark Donaldson made a split-second decision that would change his life.
His extraordinary courage in rescuing a wounded Afghan interpreter during an ambush in eastern Afghanistan saw him awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia for his actions that day, making him the first Australian since the Vietnam War to receive the nation’s highest award for bravery.
It was 10 years ago now, but the former SAS soldier can recall the details – the sight, the sounds, the smells, and how it felt – as if it were yesterday.
“We’d taken out quite a lot of the leadership from the different networks … and we were just really chasing the cream on top, and that led us to a place about 80 to 100 km from where we hung out to an American special forces base [Anaconda, north-east of Tarin Kot],” Donaldson said.
“The Americans said there are bad guys up in the north, there are bad guys out in the east, and in the south and what not, so we came up with a plan to send them out as bait basically in their cars ... We were up in the hills the night before [and the idea was] we will get the bad guys when they come to get the goodies … And it worked really well.”
The patrol then focused on the Ana Kalay Valley, near the village of Khas Uruzgan, a known hotbed of Taliban activity.
“So, we said, what can we do? Let’s replicate something similar … Was there a risk there? Yeah, there was a risk there… They were talking about attacking us and what not, but there weren’t really the signs there that this was going to happen,” he said. “We got off their cars and went into a position to help overwatch their move… They pushed seven guys from the top of the network straight into the hills, and they ran straight into the Aussie patrols. We took out the whole top echelon of that network, so it was successful.
“On the way back from our position, we hopped back in the vehicles … to head back to the operating base… I remember just before we came off that hill … watching this guy [in] … dark robes come out of the hills on the northern side of the valley on this high ridge line…. I remember discussing it with my mate… We both thought that’s a bit weird, but what can you do? What can you prove? Nothing. People come out of the hills all the time up there, but we noted it, and we passed it on, but it was one of those little things you remember.”