A routine patrol by a New Zealand Defence Force team in Afghanistan ended in tragedy yesterday when the troops were ambushed by insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.

When the attack ended, Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell, 28, a decorated soldier, was dead - the first New Zealand soldier to die in combat in a decade.

Two of his men - Lance Corporal Matthew Ball, 24, and Private Allister Baker, 23 - were seriously wounded during the ambush, in the north-eastern province of Bamiyan.

Tim O'Donnell grew up dreaming of being a soldier.

He first revealed his military aspirations as a 4-year-old, in his grandmother's arms. She encouraged him by giving him an Army helmet, and before long he was camouflaging his face.

He joined up in 2005.


As he prepared for his Afghanistan service in April, his father, Mark O'Donnell, gave some advice.

"I told him to be brave, but I didn't want him to be dead brave. I wanted him to come home," he said. "He laughed and patted me on the back."

The former policeman choked back tears as he described yesterday's "nightmare" news.

"I was in Auckland. My wife [Maryanne] was at home by herself and she got a knock on the door," Mr O'Donnell said at the Linton Army Base in Manawatu.

"I thought it was a joke at first. It wasn't, unfortunately. It was a nightmare this morning."

New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan were expected to return last night to the scene of the attack that killed Lieutenant O'Donnell, to try to establish what happened early yesterday.

The two survivors - Lance Corporal Matthew Ball and Private Allister Baker - are recovering.

Lance Corporal Ball has burns to about 10 per cent of his body, a gash to his leg and a cut on his head, and Private Baker has cuts, abrasions and a broken foot.

They are expected to be flown to Germany for treatment, before returning to New Zealand.

Low cloud and steep mountainous terrain meant air support services could not immediately rescue the soldiers after the attack.

They had to take cover in a nearby building for 11 hours.

The Defence Force said the delay in getting to the soldiers did not appear to be a factor in Lieutenant O'Donnell's death.

Mark and Maryanne O'Donnell's last phone call to their soldier son was a fortnight ago, and emails were regular.

"We were discussing a trip to Europe at the end of his tour, to the D-Day beaches which he was really keen on. He wore the uniform with pride," his grieving father said.

The O'Donnells had discussed "at length" the risks their son faced and, although devastated, they understood.

"If he had to go, it's better that it was doing something he loved," Mr O'Donnell said.

The enormity of the attack was only starting to sink in last night with the families of the two survivors.

Lance Corporal Ball's father, Allan, said: "We feel sorry for the other family. It could have happened either way. It's starting to hit us now because we worked all day. We didn't know anything, we haven't heard anything."

Friends, family and former comrades paid tribute to Lieutenant O'Donnell, the "likeable rogue" who they said was born to be in the Army.

"He loved his work and loved the Army," said Lieutenant Jamie Blackmoore, who worked with him at Burnham Military Camp in Canterbury last year.

"Tim loved to push the boundaries and pull a prank whenever the opportunity arose."

His skills were second to none.

"No one would question him. He was competent, he knew all his drills, he had all the skills to back it up, he had the knowledge."

Defence chief Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae described Lieutenant O'Donnell as a "free spirit".

One year into his career - in November 2006 - Lieutenant O'Donnell was sent to join the Kiwi peacekeeping force in East Timor.

Six months later, when his platoon came across a crowd of 1000 Fretilin Party supporters returning from an election rally, he earned a medal.

Fearing attack from opposition supporters, the Fretilins stopped on the outskirts of Manatuto.

But when the United Nations ignored orders and began moving them across a bridge, they were ambushed by a crowd of 600.

As commander, Lieutenant O'Donnell ordered his soldiers to intervene. They were also attacked, and fired warning shots.

A safe route around Manatuto was secured for the Fretilin supporters and Lieutenant O'Donnell was honoured with a Distinguished Service Decoration.

As well as his parents, Lieutenant O'Donnell leaves brother Andrew, in Scotland, and sister Anna in their hometown of Feilding.

- additional reporting by Andrew Koubaridis, NZPA