b. 02/04/1979 Waratah, Australia.
Mark Gregor Strang Donaldson (1979-) was born in Warratah, New South Wales, Australia. He was the younger son of Greg Donaldson, a Vietnam War veteran, and Bernadette. He grew up in the small northern New South Wales township of Dorrigo, attending Dorrigo High School, a small state public school, until 1996. In 1995 his father died suddenly of a heart attack and Mark and his brother became wards of Legacy, one of their legatees being a former member of the same Army unit their father had served in.
Tragedy struck again when one morning in April 1998, just after his 19th birthday, Donaldson called home. A neighbour answered; his mum was missing. There were bloodstains throughout the house. “To this day she’s never been found,” Donaldson has stated. “No remains, no personal effects, nothing.”The last guiding light in his life had switched off and to this day the case is unsolved. Orphaned and “churned up” with the guilt of being a disengaged child, Donaldson drifted in an “emotional limbo”. There were stints planting trees, laying fibre-optic cables, seasons snowboarding with dreadlocks in Canada, and then work as a “snowmaker” at Thredbo and Deer Valley in Utah.
A subconscious “guilt that I had not been there to save mum” tugged him towards wanting to “atone by protecting others”. In Thredbo,a British special forces soldier opened his eyes to a vocation that could sate his desire for adventure while also “making amends”. A newspaper ad showing an SASR soldier in free-fall galvanised his decision. By June 2002, Donaldson was on the seven-hour bus trip out of Sydney to the army’s basic training camp, Kapooka. The ruffian who had been excoriated by a magistrate as a “piece of shit” blitzed Kapooka with prizes for shooting and fitness. He went on to pass the notoriously arduous SASR selection course, which has a 70 per cent attrition rate, in April 2004.
He was posted to 3 Squadron in May 2004. He has since seen service in East Timor, Iraq (Operation Falconer) and Afghanistan (Operation Slipper). During his deployment to Afghanistan, he was slightly wounded on 12th August 2008 when the Bushmaster protected mobility vehicle he was travelling in struck an improvised explosive device.
The actions for which Donaldson’s Victoria Cross for Australia were awarded took place on 2nd September 2008. Patrolling with Afghan and US forces, they were ambushed by a well-prepared and larger Taliban force. The ambush began with sustained machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire, causing several casualties. Donaldson deliberately exposed himself to fire from the Taliban fighters in order to draw their attention away from the casualties, allowing them to be moved to cover. When the patrol attempted to withdraw, the number of casualties was such that the unwounded personnel (including Donaldson) had to make their way on foot, beside their vehicles, as the casualties filled the vehicles. As they set off, it was realised that an Afghan interpreter attached to the patrol was wounded, and had not been loaded into the vehicles. Donaldson immediately crossed the 80 metres (87 yd) or so of open ground between the convoy and the interpreter, under heavy fire, and then carried him back to the vehicles where Donaldson administered first aid. The patrol eventually broke free of the ambush after two hours.
When asked about the incident, Donaldson commented: “I’m a soldier, I’m trained to fight … it’s instinct and it’s natural. I just saw him there, I went over and got him, that was it.” The events were first reported by the Australian press on 12th December 2008 following a briefing by Major General Tim McOwan on 11th December. At this stage Donaldson was identified only as “Trooper F”. Donaldson then became the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for Australia on 16th January 2009; he was presented with the medal by the Governor-General at a ceremony in Government House, Canberra.
The official citation was published in a special edition of the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette of 20th January 2009 and states (in part) that the award was made for ” … most conspicuous acts of gallantry in action in a circumstance of great peril in Afghanistan, as part of the Special Operations Task Group during Operations SLIPPER, Oruzgan province, Afghanistan.” Seven days after the medal presentation, Donaldson lent his VC and other medals to the Australian War Memorial in an official ceremony. The medals were placed on display at the end of February 2009. Donaldson was subsequently received in audience by the Queen of Australia, Elizabeth II, at Windsor Castle on 10th November 2009.
After being presented with his VC, Donaldson requested permission to remain a member of the SASR and participate in operational postings. This was approved by Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, and Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie. Donaldson subsequently served in Afghanistan for a four-month period in 2009, made a brief deployment to the country in early 2010 and deployed again in 2013. He was also promoted to the rank of corporal in 2010 after completing a junior leaders course.
On 11th November 2009, Donaldson and British VC recipient Johnson Beharry handed a wreath to the Queen during a service in Westminster Abbey which marked the deaths in 2009 of the last three veterans of the First World War resident in the United Kingdom, Bill Stone, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. The wreath was then laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. While Donaldson was in London, news emerged in Afghanistan that Sabi, an explosives detection dog that was declared missing in action after the 2nd September ambush, had been found alive and well by an American soldier. Donaldson said of the news that it “closed a chapter in their shared history” and “She’s the last piece of the puzzle … Having Sabi back gives some closure for the handler and the rest of us that served with her in 2008. It’s a fantastic morale booster for the guys.” Donaldson was announced as the Patron-in-Chief of the military charity Soldier On Australia on 4 October 2014.
Donaldson is married to Emma, and has a daughter and a son. He has written a memoir called The Crossroad, which was published by Macmillan in 2013. Emma had described him as being “married to the army”. Donaldson says of himself: “I don’t see myself as a hero, honestly. I still see myself as a soldier first and foremost.”
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ON LOAN TO THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL, CANBERRA.
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Medal Group at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.