Sunday, February 08, 2009

Trooper Mark Gregory Donaldson

On a different note to the somewhat depressing tenor of my last blog, here's something about a man and actions taken by him that you'd normally expect to see in military action flicks, like The Unit TV series, Tears of the Sun, or, somewhat more 'realistically' perhaps, Black Hawk Down.

But, no; it seems like this isn't fiction. I know that hearing of bravery on the battlefield will instantly turn some people off. They'll dismiss it for any number of reasons, almost all of which would better qualify as rationalizations. Because, just like hearing about the death of someone who matters to us in some way—or at least enough, for us not to just be able to dismiss it as a non-event—hearing about someone else exposing themselves, probably knowingly, to the risk of highly or apparently utterly certain death...that implicitly asks a question, which few of us will be willing to acknowledge, let along try to answer: Would I be similarly brave?

Or 'gallant', as it's sometimes called; a word that's pretty much fallen into disuse, and which would be found much more likely in the works of, say, Georgette Heyer, than in everyday discourse. And maybe this is a better term for it—because it has fallen out of use and therefore out of abuse. For words are like micro stories, in the sense that they possess narrative content, given to them by the context in which they appear through semantic extension. As such, 'gallant' has certain connotations that make it appealing because of its antiquated nature, and despite the fact that, if it is used at all 'on the street', it would be in the sense of 'gallantry' applied by men toward women—which, you must admit, isn't only unfashionable in the vast majority of societies aorund the world, these days, but in some instances will be considered inflammatory or insulting.

Back to the original subject. The truth is—as it has always been, but probably has become more so today, having found a myriad rationalizations by urbanized humankind—that few of us, very few!, are even capable of the kind of act for which Trooper Donaldson was cited for the highest military honor that can be bestowed within the nations of the 'Commonwealth'.

I can hear some cringe at reading something couched in those terms—if for no other reason, but that it makes them embarrassed. Said embarrassment could come from the notion that the Victoria Cross is awarded to those displaying exceptional courage 'in the face of the enemy'. And some would object that even thinking in term of 'enemy' devalues the decoration, and by implication the act for which someone might have been decorated; if only because the valor of the person in question is decreased because he or she thought of someone else as 'enemy'.

But 'enemy' is another one of those words that lives through the attached narrative. In its most parsimonious meaning-provided-by-context, an 'enemy' is someone—usually a person or persons, but quite possibly something more abstract...let me think; maybe 'stupidity'? that could be a definite 'enemy' and it is, for a great many people!—who wants to do you and yours harm. Now, while I sympathize with the 'civilized' way of looking at things and trying to figure out ways to make an enemy less inimical by using 'rational' approaches, there are times and places, and they aren't really as rare as many would claim, that 'reason' needs to take a backseat to expediency, and that the only 'reason' which applies is the one that says 'Fixing things is not within the scope of the dead' or something like that.

I do, however, suspect that the true source of embarrassment when people read the excerpt from the citation of the Trooper Donaldson's award below, is that they know, or at least suspect or maybe even fear, that, were they called upon to perform an equivalent act of gallantry, that would truly put their own precious lives into some serious harm's way, they would be incapable of stepping up to the challenge. And what easier and expedient way to devalue or make trivial someone else's accomplishments than by denigrating his or her framework of existence. And yet, at the heart of it all, I smell the stench of envy.

And here's the true and bitter irony of this: many of these people—and this is something unprovable, though there's ample evidence that it is true—are actually capable of the same level of...well, let's stick to 'gallantry' as Trooper Donaldson, though they're living in circumstances that will make it far less likely that they'll ever have to prove it. While others probably think they would be—and they're not likely to. This is usually the way of things.

Until we are tested, most of us will never know. Some of us have the good fortune to be tested and to survive and to make things better. Others will be tested and also make things better, but at the cost of their lives. And yet others will be tested, lose their lives and their sacrifice will be in vain. It appears to me that Trooper Donaldson is not only a gallant and brave soldier, but also a very, very lucky man.

As are we all—if only we saw this for what it is—because what happened demonstrates that gallantry need not end in tragedy, even though it often does.

On 02 September 2008, during the conduct of a fighting patrol, Trooper Donaldson was travelling in a combined Afghan, US and Australian vehicle convoy that was engaged by a numerically superior, entrenched and coordinated enemy ambush. The ambush was initiated by a high volume of sustained machine gunfire coupled with of rocket propelled grenades. Such was the effect of the initiation that the combined patrol suffered numerous casualties, completely lost the initiative and became immediately suppressed.

It was over two hours before the convoy was able to establish a clean break and move to an area free of enemy fire.
In the early stages of the ambush, Trooper Donaldson reacted spontaneously to regain the initiative. He moved rapidly between alternate positions of cover engaging the enemy with 66mm and 84mm anti-amour weapons as well as his M4 rifle. During an early stage of the enemy ambush, he deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire in order to draw attention to himself and thus away from the wounded soldiers. This selfless act alone bought enough time for those wounded to be moved to relative safety. The patrol was forced to conduct numerous vehicle manoeuvres, under the intense enemy fire, over a distance of approximately four kilometres to extract the convoy from the engagement area.

Compounding the extraction was the fact that casualties had consumed all available space within the vehicles. Those who had not been wounded, including Trooper Donaldson, were left with no option but to run beside the vehicles throughout.
During the conduct of this vehicle manoeuvre to extract the convoy from the engagement area, a severely wounded coalition force interpreter was inadvertently left behind. Of his own volition and displaying complete disregard for his own safety, Trooper Donaldson moved alone, on foot, across approximately 80 metres of exposed ground to recover the wounded interpreter. His movement, once identified by the enemy, drew intense and accurate machine gun fire from entrenched positions. Upon reaching the wounded coalition force interpreter, Trooper Donaldson picked him up and carried him back to the relative safety of the vehicles then provided immediate first aid before returning to the fight. On subsequent occasions during the battle, Trooper Donaldson administered medical care to other wounded soldiers, whilst continually engaging the enemy.

Trooper Donaldson's acts of exceptional gallantry in the face of accurate and sustained enemy fire ultimately saved the life of a coalition force interpreter and ensured the safety of the other members of the combined Afghan, US and Australian force. Trooper Donaldson's actions on this day displayed exceptional courage in circumstances of great peril.

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