He was man of action. Major Craig Wilson had been in gunfights before and walked away. Why would this be any different? The ex-NZSAS hard man, coming down to command infantry troops on what everyone knew would be a "hot" tour of Afghanistan, in the middle of the global "war on terror", his men looked up to him. An officer and a gentleman, scared of nobody, and here he was on the ground with his tight-knit band of highly-trained killers, scouring the rocky tan hills for "insurgents", the Afghan Taliban enemy hiding out there somewhere. Somewhere.
He grilled his officers on why the area hadn't been cleared, prodded local police on exactly where the insurgents had scarpered after their earlier dust-up which Wilson and his Kiwi Company troops were responding to. Wilson was barking orders when three men emerged from behind a large rock. Right in front of them, across the river. His momentary shock lasted a nanosecond, enough time for a myriad checklist: rules of engagement; were they surrendering; could they be civilians, or local police? No. He raised his rifle.
"Time was up. They had to go. I did not enjoy killing the two that I shot, but I was not going to send Graham [Hansen] to clear that ground knowing I had left insurgents there waiting for him," he would write later.
His lads followed his lead and unleashed hell. In the mayhem, Wilson sub-consciously knew not all of the rounds were outgoing. Someone, somewhere was firing back at them. All his experience – this was his fourth tour of Afghanistan – told him it was "on". Time to fight. He had been "s***-scared" by incoming fire before. He had never wilted, but admits he had found it hard to fight. When you concentrate on the fact someone is shooting at you, trying to kill you, it take submerge your brain and freeze you up. He'd seen it happen to good men.
"It can take over you," he told the Herald from his Upper Hutt home. "It's like the crack of a bullwhip right next to your ear – crack crack-crack crack crack-crack-crack. You know it's close. You're thinking: where do I go? Where do I get cover? I train myself to ignore it and treat it like it's not happening. You build up an arrogant attitude, of knowing you can outshoot the average Afghan, and it's quite true, I know I can, I've trained to do it. It's me versus him, and I'm going to win. It's only going one way, here we go."
Then, three cracks of the bullwhip. Crack-crack-thump. It feels like a snake bite on the shoulder, or a brutal rugby tackle. Where the f*** did that come from?
"This is it," he thinks. "You're dead."
His men are in the fight for their lives. And he's just been knocked out of the contest. Man down, someone needs to step up. This will not end well. Two "great New Zealanders" Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer and Lance Corporal Rory Malone will soon be shot dead during the now-infamous August 2012 Battle of Baghak, New Zealand's bloodiest infantry battle since Vietnam. Several more gravely wounded. A fortnight later, while he's recovering in a US military hospital in Germany, a massive roadside bomb will kill three more of his Kiwi troops. When he finally gets home to see his wife and small sons, he'll get labelled "gung-ho", out to pick a fight. Six years on, that still hurts Wilson . And today he's still fighting, although this time it's for the truth, now publicly for the first time, and in the names of the fallen.
Wilson walked home from Trentham Camp a broken man. His sterling Special Forces career was over. Four years as an NZSAS troop commander, leading New Zealand's elite fighters, including Victoria Cross winner Corporal Willie Apiata, three tours of Afghanistan, some "massive combat incidents", awarded the third highest military medal, the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration (NZGD), a few more years in staff officer jobs. He felt blindsided by the news.
Once the anger subsided to shame and then disbelief and worry, the strong-willed pharmacist's son from Taranaki finally found a degree of acceptance. He had a new job. Rifle company command at 2nd 1st Battalion, down at Burnham Military Camp outside Christchurch. And once he got his head around it, he gave everything to his infantry role: training up a hundred or so of New Zealand's finest infantrymen for two years, before returning to an Army headquarters staff officer desk job in Wellington.
But halfway through 2010, already guilty for not going on operations, he was called up again. Lieutenant Colonel Hugh McAslan asked Wilson to stay on until the end of 2012.
"Although he did not mention it, we both knew that he was scheduling me to deploy to Afghanistan with Operation Crib 20," married father-of-three Wilson writes in his soon to be released book, Bravo Kiwi.
Wilson, a staunch, meticulous officer who led by example, set about training up his men for the inevitable deployment. He wanted them as well prepared as possible. His troops were tested to their limits in the Tekapo wilderness and across South Island backblocks for months. They were ready. He knew of the dangers, and difficulties, of fighting an insurgency war on foreign soil. And he wanted to bring all his troops home.
But he could see concerning patterns emerging. Rising IED threats and explosions. During their last major training exercise, more senior officers than usual showed up for a gawk. Wilson felt it was no accident that he was chosen as Crib 20's commander.
"The ex-SAS Major who's been in combat two to three times, got a gallantry award, who is down in the infantry ... They wanted someone who could deal with combat because they knew it was likely," he told the Herald. "And too right, they should've done that. But they hadn't prepared the public for that."
It wasn't just the top brass with an eye on him. One night in the bar, relaxing before the gruelling six-month combat deployment, Wilson was cornered by an older army colleague. The big, gruff West Coast league player stood over him and said, "You do get it that it's not worth trading the lives of our soldiers with their soldiers". Wilson, a sandy-haired, wiry 188cm rugby player, was incensed.
"I got really angry, walking at him. 'Are you f****** talking to me? I've been to Afghanistan and I know how f****** futile it is when you're coming home with wounded guys and you're thinking, for what?'"
It gnawed at Wilson though. He composed plans to minimise any chance of trouble. The main mission for the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) was to get the local Provincial Quick Reaction Force up to speed and teach Afghan security forces to police their own patch. He looked at previous tours and decided to slash patrols by at least two-thirds.
"That evening in the bar really made me think, 'Is he right?' I knew that was how some people thought of me. I carried a certain reputation in the Army," he said.
"I've always been in the frontline, I'm not afraid of anything. I fight hard but I do not put my soldiers in harm's way for no reason. You don't know what the enemy is going to do. So if someone does die, whose fault is that? Mine? Or the enemy's? It's impossible to defend yourself against that sort of criticism. Yes, I'm a commander and I take responsibility, so if something bad happens, then I guess I own it. But are people going to treat me fairly in response to that and know I did everything I could?"
Those thoughts would provide cold comfort while looking out the window of the Hercules flying over the Hindu Kush mountains and the inhospitable terrain below.
April - August 2012
Bamiyan was quiet. The remote mountainous province, famous for its ancient Buddha statues, was an oasis of calm, compared to the killing fields elsewhere in Afghanistan since the US came knocking following the 9/11 terror attacks, and hunting its mastermind, Al-Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden.
New Zealand had signed up to do its bit. From late 2001 to 2013, more than 3500 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel would serve in Afghanistan, mainly based in Bamiyan. There had been four separate NZSAS deployments and around NZ$300 million poured into it.
But for Wilson and Crib 20, NZDF's 20th rotation of troops to Afghanistan, it had been a perfect tour so far. No contacts, no dreaded IEDs, and no dramas.
"Higher intelligence was giving me nothing, lower intelligence was giving me nothing. And that was a good thing," said Wilson, who was acutely aware of ensuring his troops didn't become complacent.
The Kahmard Valley was deemed pretty safe. Previous tours had formed good relationships with local tribal leaders and applying counter-insurgency tactics of encouraging support of the admittedly flawed Afghan authorities.
The problem was a road from a nearby village of Do Abe to Baghak, which bordered with an unknown badlands of the neighbouring Baghlan Province - outside the New Zealanders' arena.
A microcosm of the war, where Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters had long flitted across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as and when it suited them, blending back into the populace, there had long been fears of enemy fighters would cross the Baghlan border and attack the Kiwis. And every northern summer, the insurgency ramped up operations after Eid al-Fitr festival and when many of the men are temporarily unemployed after harvest and then go to war.
"That's when it all kicks off," Wilson says. "The only question is, will it come your way or somewhere else?"
August 4, 2012
As Kiwi Company were rustling up some breakfast, checking emails, and planning some more in-base gym work, a call came through the radio. There had been an attack on an Afghan National Police (ANP) post. One dead, one wounded. They claimed to still be in contact.
Wilson sent Kiwi Team 4 in armoured Humvees and a "beefed-up" Kiwi Team 2, which had the heavier firepower of three Light Armoured Vehicle (LAVs), to support their ANP allies.
There were soon difficulties with radio communications, which plagued them throughout that fateful day, but it soon became clear to Wilson that he needed more men, and himself, on the spot.
By the time Wilson arrived at around midday, he found a "pretty strange" and confused scene. His troops were scanning the sheer cliffs that engulfed them. He found a senior Afghani National Directorate of Security (NDS) commander who, through an interpreter, revealed they'd kicked things off with a raid earlier that morning on a compound across a river that ran through the valley the Kiwis found themselves in. Insurgents had fought back and withdrawn over the river, away from the narrow road. The local commander pointed to a large rock and reckoned there was an insurgent visible there. Wilson scanned the scene with a powerful optical sight, and thought he spotted a human arm silhouetted against a rock.
The commander assured him none of his men were over the river. Wilson admits being annoyed with his men that the area had not yet been cleared. They had not seen any insurgents. While devising a plan to get the Afghans to "sort out their own mess", a coalition jet gave a menacing "low show of force" over the valley. Possibly spooked, the three insurgents emerged. Wilson shot the first two dead.
"The lads followed my lead and by the time my sights reached the third insurgent, there was no need to fire. A frustrating loss of control then ensued. I understood it, but did not like it one bit," Wilson writes.
A wide-eyed Lance Corporal Rory Malone, whose great-great grandfather was Lieutenant Colonel William Malone - the hero of Gallipoli battle Chunuk Bair – "stacked" on Wilson's shoulder and started firing, blasting his eardrum.
"I turned on Rory angrily, but immediately saw the effect of adrenaline in his wild look. He had just figured out what he had done as I said, 'Really!' He immediately bolted and repositioned. You can't keep a good man down," Wilson says in Bravo Kiwi.
While trying to work out where the firing was coming from, Wilson was hit. He knew it was bad. The next thing he knew, Malone appeared and started dragging him behind a Humvee, out of the sniper's view, with Lieutenant Chris Scott pulling his legs. Malone was shot in the fleshy part of his thigh but battled on.
"You tell my wife and kids I love them," Wilson told Scott. "You tell them yourself. You're going to be okay," he replied.
With fire coming from two directions, and 26-year-old Malone the sole target, he was shot dead.
Wilson was rushed to a makeshift casualty collection post in a derelict mud house. His war was over.
But the fierce pitched battle raged on. It was impossible to tell where all the fire was coming from. Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer, 26, was shot in the head by the sniper while trying to retrieve an ammunition box on the LAV turret-mounted machine gun which they feared was going to explode.
"Pralli knew what he was doing," Wilson told the Herald. "He could've told his mate to get up there, he was the commander. In his last minutes, that's a real hero right there. He will never get an award but I wanted to tell the truth of what happened in his very last seconds."
Six other New Zealanders were wounded, including Sergeant Johnny Duncan and Private Dion Taka. Some injuries came from a horror blue-on-blue incident, where Kiwi soldiers fired on compatriots. The NDS reportedly suffered 13 casualties, including four dead.
Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, who would die a fortnight later along with Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, and Private Richard Harris, 21, when their Humvee would hit a 20kg roadside IED, distinguished himself that day by leading men to secure a critical piece of high ground.
Although, for a while there, he thought he was going to die, and he still doesn't have full use of his right shoulder and arm, Wilson was one of the lucky ones. He got medevacked out and received the best military medical treatment in Afghanistan, and then in Germany. He got to go home.
When he looks back now on August 4, 2012, it's like a bad dream.
"You tell me how we train for that. You cannot train that live. Physically impossible. It was a nightmare."
On Saturday mornings in Upper Hutt, Wilson gets to watch his sons play sport. He chats with the other parents, cheers on the home team.
After a 20-year career, Wilson left the Army earlier this year. He's now operations manager for an ammunition company, a supplier to the Government and shooting sports industry, and training for his second Invictus Games in Sydney later this month - an international Paralympic-style multi-sport event, created by Prince Harry, where wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel compete in a variety of sports.
He's adjusting well to civvie street – "now I know how retired footy players must feel" - and says he's now at peace with the tragic events of August 4, 2012. The process of writing the book helped with that. On the suggestion of Land Component Commander Brigadier Mark Wheeler, he started writing, scraggly in his uneducated left hand, within weeks of that dark day and treated it as an after-action review to figure out just what happened during the Battle of Baghak. An official Court of Inquiry was also happening at the same time, and would later conclude that Wilson's "application of lethal force" was justified.
"I knew there were a lot of other people scrambling around looking for answers," Wilson told the Herald, adding that he had issues with the inquiry's terms of reference. "Normally, I would be in a position to say what happened, and I wasn't. I knew there would be challenges, in terms of getting clarity on what happened. But I knew where I had deployed people, what jobs I had given them, and so I followed a logical sequence of asking the people who were in the right positions, and who had the responsibilities for doing things."
The result is a remarkable contemporaneous account of New Zealand military history, with a unique aspect that it was written by someone who was both a mid-ranking officer but also in the thick of the action on the ground.
But once it was finished in 2013, the NZDF blocked its publication, despite Wilson being backed by then Army chief Major General Dave Gawn. Army bosses said he was too critical of his subordinates and feared the book would erode trust and confidence.
Although he wasn't happy with the directive, Wilson, then a career Army man, accepted the decision.
"I'd been sent on jobs in the past where I've had to risk my life over nothing. But I did it, because it was an order. Once in a while you have to do something you don't believe in. So in this case, I sucked it up, even though I believed they were wrong."
So now that he's out of the military, he's free to publish. It doesn't talk about his SAS days: "It's opsec (operations security) for a good reason."
But he's proud of his SAS service. "I gave it everything I had," he told the Herald. "I've tried to earn the respect of people I respect, and I feel I've done that. Being in the SAS is different. It's a different beast. The minimum standard of the guys is so high and it allows you to operate in a slightly different way. But it was good for me in a sense that it taught me to trust soldiers and to see the best in them. And that is something that I took back to the infantry."
He has dedicated the book to the five New Zealanders who died during Operation Crib 20. To Wilson, "they are great New Zealanders" and he felt it was important to tell their stories, and show that they are not forgotten.
"People should be proud of what we did in Afghanistan. I don't expect people to become all rah-rah like they are in America – not at all. But I do think you can start with a base level of respect," he says.
"The guys fought, and fought hard. It shouldn't be seen as a win or loss. It should be seen as service to this country and something to be proud of. Things like, there's a university [in Afghanistan] where there was once no primary school. But to get that, we had to pay a price. Did we manage that perfectly? Could we have got that result without sacrifice? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it could've been a lot worse as well."
Bravo Kiwi: New Zealand Soldiers, Afghanistan, and the Battle of Baghak is published by Bateman Publishing, rrp $39.99. A percentage of the proceeds goes to the Fallen Heroes Trust.