Inquiry told of fight to save soldier

By Derek Cheng

Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell. Photo / Supplied
Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell. Photo / Supplied

Under a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and machinegun fire, two injured New Zealand soldiers tried in vain to pull Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell to safety after their vehicle was hit by a bomb.

Lance Corporal Matthew Ball and Private Allister Baker both suffered serious injuries from an explosion that engulfed their Humvee, the first in a four-vehicle convoy in the remote and mountainous region of Bamiyan province, Afghanistan.

Lieutenant O'Donnell, who was in the front passenger seat, was killed in the attack last August - the first New Zealand soldier to die in Afghanistan.

The road was washed out and the Humvee had slowed down to take the first hairpin corner of the detour when the explosion hit.

As a fire engulfed the rear of the Humvee, Private Baker, the gunner, leaped over the turret and moved to the passenger door, where he was joined by Lance Corporal Ball.

An Afghan interpreter in the Humvee had already escaped along the riverbed to safety, but Lance Corporal Ball, with burns to 10 per cent of his body, a gash on his leg and a cut to his head, and Private Baker, who had cuts and a broken foot, stayed put.

They took turns trying to pull Lieutenant O'Donnell from the vehicle, which was hit by up to seven grenades - including one to the bonnet and windscreen.

The fire in the Humvee intensified, causing the ammunition inside to start exploding, and insurgents hiding in the hilltops fired a relentless stream of bullets at the pair.

They eventually realised they would be killed if they did not take cover, and dived into a nearby dry riverbed, crawling for cover. As they did so, they heard an explosion from the Humvee.

Their extraordinary bravery was highlighted yesterday in the Court of Inquiry report into the death of Lieutenant O'Donnell, who was likely killed instantly as soon as the first bomb exploded.

Private Baker and Lance Corporal Ball are likely to be among the Defence Force's recommendations for bravery awards, which the Government is considering.

But the inquiry praised the entire patrol: "The actions of the patrol, after losing its commander and a significant portion of its firepower in the initial [explosion], displayed determination and tactical competence, even at the most junior soldier level. The patrol's initial reaction to contact was swift and decisive, and ensured further casualties were prevented."

The inquiry also highlighted a number of shortcomings, including the inadequacy of "in-theatre" training and the decision to evacuate the injured in a way that compromised their care for the sake of good media coverage.

But Defence Force chief Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones and the family of Lieutenant O'Donnell doubted whether the death could have been avoided, even if all the best training and practices were followed.

Lieutenant O'Donnell's uncle, Barry, said: "Tim's death would have occurred regardless of whether any of those recommendations had been put in place before this event occurred.

"With an ambush, how do you actually train and plan for an event so unexpected? If the enemy is determined to take you out and you're in their terrain, you're in a very bad place."

As the lead vehicle was bombarded, the other three - a Humvee with a trailer, a Hilux, and a Hilux with a trailer - reversed towards shelter.

But the Humvee jack-knifed, stopping it dead, and the Hilux in front reversed into it. As the soldiers jumped out and hid behind a compound wall, the gunner on the Humvee returned fire at the insurgents in the hills, using a machinegun because the grenade launcher failed.

The patrol used the Humvee as a shield to recover a machinegun, ammunition and a radio from one of Hiluxes.

The patrol was in radio contact with Lance Corporal Ball and Private Baker, and had initially rejected a rescue request because of the onslaught of bullets.

But after 35 minutes the firing subsided, and the patrol, again using the Humvee for cover, inched forwards and picked them up from the riverbed.

By the time the Afghan police arrived, 90 minutes after the initial bomb blast, the insurgents had fled.

Deteriorating weather meant the casualties could not be taken out by helicopter. It was 3am the next morning by the time the injured and Lieutenant O'Donnell's body arrived back at the Provincial Reconstruction Team base.

They were flown to Bagram at 7pm, and eventually transferred to an Air Force Boeing, which took them back to New Zealand.

General Jones said the reconstruction team in Bamiyan was a humanitarian effort in a conflict zone.

"We can't avoid the reality of the probability of deaths occurring in operations." He was confident the team members were trained as well as they could be.

- NZ Herald

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