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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 482

Mr ZAPPIA (5:20 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker, I too seek your indulgence to make a brief statement in respect of Trooper Mark Donaldson VC. I do not personally know Trooper Mark Donaldson, nor have I met him, but I have taken the time to listen to other speakers and to read about him, both out of respect for him as a person and as a soldier, and out of respect for the men and women who wear the Australian Defence Force uniform and who Mark represents.

My personal interest arises because, over the years, I have developed a close relationship and friendship with many serving and retired Defence Force members and with most veterans’ organisations in my community. Only last Friday, I attended the 10th anniversary dinner at the Lutheran village RSL. And on the 19th of this month I hope to attend a service to commemorate the bombing of Darwin, at the Salisbury RSL. Through those relationships, I have learnt a great deal about the defence people who have served and who presently serve our country, and my respect for and admiration and appreciation of them all has grown immensely. So when Trooper Mark Donaldson was awarded a Victoria Cross—an award issued, I believe, only 96 other times previously in Australia’s 153 year history of that award—it became evident that Trooper Donaldson had demonstrated extraordinary bravery and extraordinary personal qualities.

My interest was also aroused because Keith Payne, who was the last recipient of the Victoria Cross, for his actions 40 years ago in Vietnam, is a person whom I have met and spoken with on several occasions. I want to briefly reflect on Keith Payne and what led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross. It is reported that, in May 1969, Keith Payne was commanding the 212th Company of the 1st Mobile Strike Force Battalion in Vietnam when it was attacked by a strong North Vietnamese force. His company was isolated, and surrounded on three sides. Payne’s Vietnamese troops began to fall back. Payne, by now wounded in the hands and arms, and under heavy fire, covered the withdrawal before organising his troops into a defensive perimeter. He then spent three hours scouring the scene of the day’s fight for isolated and wounded soldiers—all the while evading the enemy, who had kept up regular fire. He found some 40 wounded men, brought some in himself, and organised the rescue of others, leading the party back to base through enemy-dominated terrain. Payne’s actions that night earned him the Victoria Cross, which was gazetted on 19 September 1969.

Of particular note is that Keith Payne has never stopped caring for his defence colleagues. I have met with Keith Payne because he has travelled, on occasions, from Queensland to South Australia to support his Vietnam veteran colleagues in South Australia, with whom I have a close association. He never stopped caring about his mates.

As with Keith Payne, I suspect that Trooper Mark Donaldson’s actions in Afghanistan reflect more than just a spontaneous act of courage but, rather, an underlying special quality about Trooper Donaldson’s character. The actions which led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross are quite remarkable. The Prime Minister and other speakers have detailed the heroic actions of Trooper Donaldson in Afghanistan, and I do not intend to repeat what has already been said. I do, however, want to quote what Trooper Donaldson said when asked about the incident that he was recognised for. He said:

I’m a soldier … I’m trained to fight … It’s instinct and it’s natural … I just saw him there, I went over there and got him, that was it.

In other words, he did what came naturally to him—at least, that is my interpretation of what he did.

It was interesting to hear the Minister for Defence earlier on use the word ‘modesty’ in his description of some of our defence people; it seems to me that it certainly applies in the case of Trooper Mark Donaldson. As with Keith Payne, what I have just quoted truly says a lot about Trooper Donaldson’s character: it is the character of a person who genuinely cares for others. It also says a lot about the ethos of the men and women who serve in Australia’s defence forces. It is not a role all people are up to, and those who do serve deserve all the recognition they receive.

It must be a terrible thing to be caught up in military conflict. I could not help but listen to the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support only a few moments ago when he was talking about what it is like to be caught up in the midst of conflict. I took his words seriously because I know that he knows what he is talking about as someone who has been in that situation. It certainly made me think very carefully about what it must truly be like. He too referred to the analogy that is often used comparing sporting greats and military people; I cannot help but agree with the parliamentary secretary’s interpretation of who the true heroes are.

As the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for Australia, Trooper Mark Donaldson has rightly earned himself a place in Australian history. Of greater significance is that he has undoubtedly earned himself a place in the heart of the wounded coalition force interpreter he rescued; in the hearts of his fellow Afghan, US and Australian soldiers, whom he protected and cared for; in the hearts of his fellow soldiers, whom he continues to serve with; and in the hearts of the people of Australia, who value our defence men and women.

Trooper Mark Donaldson clearly embodies the very best qualities which distinguish the defence men and women of Australia and the very best in human nature. I take this opportunity to add my personal admiration and pay tribute to Trooper Mark Donaldson for his much deserved recognition in being awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia.