'We did it for each other'

03 September 2018 by Claire Hunter

Mark Donaldson VC

As a kid, Mark Donaldson VC was always in trouble. He got into fights and would paint graffiti on the sides of trains, but then he turned his life around and did something extraordinary.

He became the first Australian since the Vietnam War to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his extraordinary courage in Afghanistan on 2 September 2008; he was named the Young Australian of the Year in 2010; and got to meet the Queen – twice.

But the splendour of Buckingham Palace was a long way from where he’d come from.  

Mark Donaldson was born in the Newcastle suburb of Waratah on 2 April 1979, the youngest son of Gregor and Bernadette Donaldson, and grew up in Dorrigo in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. His father Greg was a Vietnam veteran, but Donaldson never dreamt that he too would become a soldier one day too.

“No one ever thought I was going to join the military, or go to war, or do any of those things, but my favourite game when I was younger was playing wars, running around with fake guns, hiding in the bush, and trying to ambush each other,” Donaldson said. “We were a little crew of boys up to adventure, so in a strange way it was going that way, but it never ever felt like it was.

“My dad always said, never join the military … The whole Vietnam thing probably wasn’t so great for him … He was always: ‘You’re never going to join the army.’ But my dad was a soldier at heart. Everything he did was a soldier’s mannerism. He was always up early, making sure the house was clean – which drove me mad when I was younger – and he always wore his slouch hat around the yard, or around the house, or going to work. He always wore his army greens from Vietnam – so for someone who was totally opposed to the military it came out in other ways.”

Mark Donaldson VC

Donaldson himself was something of a rebellious teen and a bit of a wild child at heart.

“I was the last person they’d imagine to be in the army, let alone something like the Special Forces,” he said. “I was anti-establishment, anti-authority, and all the stuff that goes with that. I had coloured hair and rings through parts of your face and all those sorts of things, and I was getting in trouble with the law. I was a cheeky little bugger at school, always back-chatting, always in trouble. I was a creative sort of guy, so I used to paint names on the sides of walls and trains and buildings and break into places and I got in a lot of trouble. I was getting into a lot of fights and all those sorts of things…”

He remembers finding some detonators in a train station when he was only 14 or 15 years old.

“We thought, this is cool,” he said. “So what’s a really smart thing to do? Let’s go set one off down the main street. Dorrigo’s a very small town, 1,200 people, right, everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows your business … So we went and set one off up the main street, against the toilet block in the park in the middle of town … What I know about detonators now is that they’re really dangerous and super loud … We thought we’d gotten away with it, but a couple of days later, my dad picked me up and took me down the police station, and put me in the jail cell and read me the riot act and all those sorts of things, but it didn’t worry me, I didn’t care.”

He was left devastated when his father died suddenly in 1995, and he sought solace in all the wrong places .

“My father having a heart attack and dying when I was 15 was a big kick in the guts,” he said. “I was running a bit wild, but I wasn’t that bad really, and he was a real rock at home – firm but fair – but there you go … You could say it sent me off in a different direction, but there was no sort of saying, what if? What if he was still around, what would have happened? I don’t see the point in that, because it didn’t happen … but it certainly changed the way I thought about things. I was exposed to the fact that life is short, or can be short, very early on.”

A few years later, tragedy struck the Donaldson family again. Donaldson was studying art and working as a kitchen-hand in Sydney when his mother disappeared in 1998. She was reported missing, presumed murdered.

“I still don’t know where she is,” he said. “The guy who did it killed himself two days after she went missing. I was 19 at that stage, and that was really in the height of the partying days, and it really was one of those turning points. It was definitely a point where you go, okay, is there more to this?”

He left Sydney and became increasingly restless, working a variety of jobs and moving from one place to another in the “pursuit of fun, games and happiness”.

“Just before I joined the military, there was a lot of partying,” he said. “I was travelling the world, chasing snow around … [and there was] lots of drinking, lots of late nights.

“I worked hard, played hard, and that was kind of what it was always about, but … it got to a point where there had to be something more than that… and that really drove my decision to want to do something … to give something back to society…  I looked at the police, I looked at the ambulance, I looked at the firefighters, but none of those were taking people in at the time.

“I was at my brother’s place in Newcastle, and a big double page spread was in the newspaper, it was probably about 20 days after September 11, or maybe 10, and it said, ‘Special Air Service Regiment,’ and it had a little picture of this guy with a winged dagger behind it.

“I didn’t have a clue what it was,[but] for whatever reason something inside me just went: I don’t know what that is, I don’t even know if it’s the military, I don’t even know what he does, but I want to be that guy. I want to go and do that.”

Mark Donaldson VC

He set about learning everything he could about the Regiment and enlisted in the Australian Army as a rifleman in June 2002. He undertook basic training at Kapooka and corps training at Singleton, winning awards for fitness and marksmanship before being posted to 1RAR in Townsville.

“I found I actually thrived in that environment and I welcomed it,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but it’s all for a shared purpose, a common goal. It’s one in, all in, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the discipline, and I loved it … You’re a part of the defence force, you’re a part of the army, and you’re the guys who are going to stand in harm’s way for the people of Australia if asked to. There’s something in that … and standing up for your country, and I think we don’t celebrate that enough. We should be proud of what they do … and we should have a sense of pride about it because when it comes to doing things that you have to do down the line – if that happens – there’s got to be a reason why you’re there – be it for your country, or be it for each other – that helps you drive forward and continue the mission that needs to be done.”

It was his desire to join the Special Forces that kept him going. “One hundred per cent,” he said. “If Australia wasn’t going to take me, I was going to go to America and try out there, and if I couldn’t cut it there, I was going to go and find somewhere else to go, and that’s where my level of commitment was at … Everyone’s different, but for me, that end goal is what drove me. I didn’t want to let my mum down because of what had happened to her, and I didn’t want to let down the rest of my family that were alive …

“I didn’t need to be the best, but I wanted to be as good as I could possibly be, and it was the first time in my life that I’d ever really gone: how good at this can I actually be?”

He began a punishing training regime and “followed it to a T”. He “refused to drink and eat rubbish” and would drop his mates off at the pub late at night and then walk for hours in the bush by himself before going to pick them up again in the early hours of the morning. It was just one of the “little tricks” he did to try to prepare himself for the Regiment’s notoriously difficult selection course.

“I’d go and get a really heavy pack and I’d go and stand in a mate’s pool, and I’d stand up to my chin in water, where I would only be able to just get my nose and my mouth out to breathe in the deep end,” he said. “I’d just stand there for an hour, once I’d built up to it … and again, it was about being able to put up with yourself in a situation like that.”

He was trying to be as prepared as he could for the mental and physical testing that lay ahead. He wouldn’t listen to music while he was training because he wouldn’t be able to rely on that to help him when it really mattered.

“I’m not going to have that to switch my mind off,” he said. “The only thing I’m going to have is my own stupid voice inside my head, fighting with me, and the sound of my feet hitting the dirt and my body moaning and groaning about it, so I may as well get used to what that sounds like, because I don’t want that to be a new voice, or a new shock when I get there, I want to have experienced that …

“The selection course is extremely gruelling, and it’s hard to train for it, but you’ve got to be prepared … They can be as fit as they like, but if the little man on their shoulder says it’s time to quit, and they believe it, its game over for them.”

Mark Donaldson VC

Photo: Defence

When the 23-year-old Donaldson was told he’d successfully completed the SASR selection course in April 2004, he was thrilled.

“It’s really, really good, but put it this way, I wouldn’t want to do it again right now,” he said, smiling. “But what I will say about selection is you can read all the books. You can be told by all your mates about how it’s going to go – the structure of it, what to expect – but I honestly think that makes no difference whatsoever, because it doesn’t matter how much you know, and how much people tell you, you’ve still got to do it, and when your lungs are bursting, because you are running in all this kit and you are trying to make a timing, it’s horrendous. But how bad do you want it?”

He smiles once more when asked if he ever felt like giving up. “No, there were times when I was really, really frustrated, and I’d had a gutful, but [that’s when] all that training [I did] came in,” he said. “Again, I had a choice … I could get really angry about it and make an emotional decision and say, stuff it, I’ve had enough, I’m walking off, I don’t need this – or I could sit down for five minutes, have a breather and get control of myself and go, ‘Oh, can I continue on? Yeah, I probably can.’ Do I really want to? And yes, I wanted to succeed, I wanted to achieve, and those are the things that drove me through that part.

“The last five days though were probably the worst, extremely minimal sleep for five days – you’re talking maybe 30 minutes – no food for five days, carrying really, really, heavy things … for 18 hours a day…  and then at night you’re just kept awake doing menial tasks… And this just went on and on and on ... and that was the hardest part by far.”

Of the 140 who started the selection course with Donaldson, only 26 would get through, and another nine would be gone before they finally finished.

For Donaldson, being selected for 14 months of intense training was a dream come true.

“I was stoked, just wrapped, but I understood how special it was,” he said. “I remember throughout the day guys just getting called in, here and there, and then they’d come back out, you know … grown men that were in tears, they were just shattered, absolutely shattered, and they said, ‘No … I didn’t make it.’ They’d finished everything, but then had to be told you’re on the next plane tonight, see you later.”

He was posted to 3 Squadron SASR at Swanbourne Barracks in Perth, and carried out specialist training in signalling and water insertion. It was around this time he met his future wife, Emma, then working with SASR support staff as a communications specialist. They have two children: Kaylee, born in 2006, and Hamish, born in 2011.

Donaldson formed part of the security detail for the Chief of Army, Prime Minister, And Minister of Defence during their visits to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005, and was part of the Special Forces Task Group that deployed to Afghanistan in May 2006. It was during a six-month rotation in 2008 that he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his extraordinary courage.

“What happened to me with the VC, it’s kind of romanticised a little bit in the sense that it was a great day, [but] it wasn’t really a great day,” he said. “I have to remember it was probably the worst day of someone’s life as well – whether it was one of the Americans that were wounded, whether it was one of the Australians that were wounded, or whether it was the family of the American guy that was killed – and on the flip side, there’s the Afghans that got killed. From the enemy’s point of view, and their families, it would have been the worst day of their lives too.”

For his wife, Emma, it was particularly difficult.

“My wife hates it,” he said. “She hates that day. She hates people talking about that day as if it’s something amazing. She’s learnt to cope with that, but that was the day I nearly didn’t come home, that was the day guys she knows got severely wounded, and it affected their families.”

Three weeks before the Victoria Cross action, Donaldson had been blown from the hood of a Bushmaster that hit an improvised explosive device.

“It’s hard for them, whether it be the wives or the husbands who are at home,” he said. “I called her up three weeks earlier saying, ‘I’ve been blown up, but everything’s still where it’s supposed to be. I’ll talk to you later on.’ It’s a bit of a shit phone call at 3 in the morning, but how else am I supposed to say that?

“A couple of years later I got shot, and I rang her up, and she was at school, and I said, ‘Look, I can’t talk long, I’m all right but those undies you bought me, they’ve got a hole in them now.’ And she’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’

“I’m like, ‘Everything’s all right, it’s not that bad, I’m fine, I’m not coming home, but I just need you to know that … I’ll talk to you later,’ and I hung up. Is that harsh? Yeah, but I don’t know how else you would say that. There’s no fluffy way to break that… But, I totally take my hat off to her.”

Today, Donaldson is reluctant to call himself lucky, preferring to use the word fortunate. For him, being a part of the Regiment was “100 per cent” worth it and he has no regrets.

“It meant, and still means, everything to me,” he said. “It will never leave us, and I never want it to, but at some stage we become those old guys, and we’ve got to know when that is, and when it’s time to move on.”

He started training other soldiers, published a best-selling book about his experiences, and eventually left the army in 2015.

“How do you describe something that means everything to you?” he said. “I don’t know how you describe that. It’s like asking you what your wife or your husband means to you when they mean everything. I can’t describe it. I’m sorry… [But] the Special Air Services Regiment to me means, Who Dares Wins, which is their motto, and that’s the best way I can describe it. And that’s about finding solutions when there’s problems that no one else wants to fix. It’s about sticking your hand up when no one else does. It’s about doing things, not just the hard way, but taking those hard routes, and those hard decisions that need to be made when they need to be made. It means making a commitment. It means having extreme discipline. It means taking absolute ownership of the situation you’re in and who you are with.

“Yeah, okay, I got the Victoria Cross … but what I’m most proud about on that day is that we would have done it anyway: what we did for each other.”

Today he works for Boeing, and remains incredibly self-effacing and humble. “If you take yourself too seriously, that’s silly,” he said with a laugh. “You’ve got to have a laugh at yourself. Plus you feel ten times better when you have a giggle.”

Read Mark Donaldson's account of the Victoria Cross action in part two of his story here.

Corporal Mark Donaldson will deliver the Commemorative Address at the 2019 Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial.

His Victoria Cross is on display in the Hall of Valour, and his book, The Crossroad, A Story of Life, Death and the SAS, published by Pan Macmillan, is available in the Memorial shop.

Mark Donaldson VC

Photo: Defence