It is seven years since Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell died - New Zealand's first combat death in the war in Afghanistan. But the shockwaves of that deadly ambush by Taleban fighters continues to echo and thrum, breaking sleep, marriages, and dreams. Private Allister Baker remembers too much of that dark day. Speaking publicly for the first time, he tells Kurt Bayer exactly what happened and how it changed his life forever.
Atop the rumbling tan Humvee's turret, Private Allister Baker scans the ridge lines from behind black wrap-around sunglasses. Gloved hands grip the mounted, heavy .50 calibre machine gun, capable of extreme violence from 1.5km. All is quiet on the Bamyan front.
It is August 2010. Baker and his comrades of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team, members of 2/1 Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, have been in the country for four months.
Military intelligence suggests the Taleban is operating in the mountainous, ancient province of Bamyan, renowned for its historical Buddha statues, where the NZDF was posted for the past seven years. Previous rotations have been ambushed and attacked but the Kiwis have so far escaped major casualties.
They have seen occasional spots on the road, or roadside, where the ground appears to have been dug out and, potentially, IEDs (improved explosive devices) lie buried in waiting.
They have also found the local villagers relatively receptive. The professional soldiers are focusing on aid and reconstruction. Lately, they've been trying to solve a long-standing flooding problem and are working with American agricultural experts helping to introduce other crops and new farming methods. Chocolates are traded for smiles with increasingly friendly children.
"We'd had no contact [with the enemy] for four months," says Baker, then an experienced 23-year-old gunner, with two tours of East Timor behind him. "Perhaps we were complacent. But the feeling was that things were pretty safe. Even that day, it all seemed fine."
On the morning of August 3, 28-year-old Lieutenant Timothy Andrew O'Donnell was the commanding officer of a four-vehicle patrol delivering supplies to the village of Ish Pesta in the isolated and mountainous Kahmard District, in the east of Bamyan Province.
In a mix of left-hand-drive US military Humvees and armoured Toyota Hiluxes - some towing trailers - they crept along narrow, winding, dirt roads. After various deliveries and meetings with locals including members of the district's Afghan National Police, they began the slow journey back to Forward Patrol Base Romero.
They'd used the route many times. The dirt roads were prone to washouts and so it was on this day. About 4.30pm, they were forced to detour across a roughly formed ford through a dry streambed, south of the village of Karimak.
The lead vehicle was a Humvee driven by Lance Corporal Matthew Ball. In the passenger seat was O'Donnell. Afghan interpreter Ajmal Ahmadi sat in the back, Baker up top.
Ball slowed to negotiate a hairpin bend. As the Humvee began to drop into the streambed, an insurgent fighter in the hills above detonated a concealed bomb.
"I thought we'd crashed," Baker says. "It wasn't until I heard a crack fly past my head that I realised we were in a contact."
The front of the Humvee bore the brunt of the explosion. It was immobilised and ablaze. Machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) hailed down from above. They were sitting ducks.
Baker, unaware the bones in his left heel had been shattered and with "adrenalin overlapping the pain", reached for his gun. But it had been blasted from its mount.
A second machine gun was also out of action and a third, kept down by his leg, was on fire.
All he had left a pistol, which was useless to him now.
"You can choose to either cower or panic or let your training kick in and do what you need to do to survive," Baker says, reliving the ordeal seven years on in a busy Christchurch cafe.
He grips his small coffee cup in two hands, twirling it incessantly.
He had to get down from the turret. Escape routes below were blocked by fire. It was only when he went to leap from the smoking vehicle and put weight on his left leg, that he realised he'd been injured.
With the roar of returning fire coming from the rear Humvee, Baker rolled over the side and landing on the dusty ground, saw commanding officer O'Donnell.
"The door was gone, or hanging open, and the front of the Humvee was all mangled. Tim's face was charred up and bloody. I couldn't tell if he was conscious or not.
"I looked over at Matty [Ball]and thought he was dead. I yelled to him and he looked over. I could hear rounds popping and knew Matty had to get out of there and that we had to try and get Tim out," Baker says.
Ball had burns to 10 per cent of his body and deep leg and head gashes. He dashed around the front of the Humvee, in the line of fire, to reach Baker, who was trying to pull O'Donnell from the flaming wreckage. O'Donnell's legs were trapped under the twisted metal.
Baker says he never checked for signs of life. The wounded pair took turns at trying to free O'Donnell, all the while targeted by the insurgents. Up to seven RPGs hit the vehicle, including one to its bonnet and windscreen.
"It was just about trying to save a mate. Leave no one behind."
Ball's hair caught fire, ammunition inside the Humvee started exploding, and Baker realised one of their own rocket launchers inside could go up, too. They had to escape the scene if they were to get out alive.
"It wasn't an easy decision to make," Baker says, looking into his coffee.
The pair crawled for cover where Ball, the platoon signaller, made radio contact with section commander Albie Moore in the rear Humvee. Moments later the Humvee was hit by yet another RPG, turning it into a fireball.
Baker later learned Moore and his other comrades thought they'd all perished in the IED blast, but when Moore learned there were survivors, he came to get them.
After 35 minutes, the firing began to subside and Moore's men inched forward to Baker and Ball, using the Humvee for cover.
"Albie risked his life and his crew's life to come and get us. They were still shooting. I'll always be indebted to them," Baker says.
By the time Afghan police arrived, 90 minutes after the attack began, the insurgents had fled.
Deteriorating weather meant the casualties could not be extracted by helicopter.
It was 3am the next day when the injured, along with O'Donnell's body, arrived back at the Kiwi base after a bumpy ride in a Unimog ambulance.
"The adrenalin kept me going for quite a long time.
"Matty was worse than I was. The gash in his leg was pretty bad," Baker says.
Ahmadi also survived and today lives in New Zealand with his family.
Baker and Ball were flown to Bagram later that day before eventually being transferred to a Royal New Zealand Air Force Boeing that took them home.
Baker was glad to be back. So was his fiancee, whom he wed within months, and his parents back in Takaka.
His mum and dad were always supportive of his life choices.
Raised in the idyllic Golden Bay area at the top of the South Island, Baker grew up in the outdoors.
The army lifestyle had always appealed, and after leaving Golden Bay High School after sixth form to work in a supermarket for a year, Baker signed up in 2005.
Straight out of basic training, he was sent to East Timor. He ended up doing two tours in the troubled region, which opened his eyes to a whole new world.
"It made me realise just how good we have things here in New Zealand."
Before he left for Afghanistan in 2010, he proposed to girlfriend, Jae. "I felt like I had a sense of purpose and knew where I was heading in life," he says.
It took Baker a long time to acknowledge how deeply what he experienced in war had changed him. Multiple operations and ongoing treatment dealt with his horrific heel injury. The burns to his upper left arm healed well.
But he refused to accept the possibility of any psychological scarring.
He lied to defence force psychologists in post-deployment briefings, telling them he was okay.
"I was a good actor. But those close to me knew it changed me greatly.
"It does get you. You can hold it off for a while, but it will get you," Baker says.
His marriage did not last long. He has struggled ever since to let anybody get close to him. He says Afghanistan is "always there, hanging over everything".
Baker was awarded the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration. That also brought challenges.
"Before that I was always just a normal soldier, a bit of a grey man. But after that, I felt like I always had to be this elite soldier, with other guys looking up to me. I felt like I had this hard core reputation to live up to," says Baker.
He now accepts he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "Some people were also hostile towards me as they may not have agreed with the award and wondered why I had been the one to get it.
"I didn't ask for this life, it just happened and once my training kicked in I did what I felt was right at the time, my job.
"All of these things had a detrimental effect on those close to me and I pushed them away. I took to alcohol to deal with it sometimes and couldn't say no when the boys wanted to have a night out."
Baker's injuries, which have resulted in painful post-trauma arthritis and require ongoing treatment, cost him his infantry job.
He took a heavy weapons platoon training role and learned the electrical trade within the NZDF. But it was sport that reversed his downward spiral.
During a deployment to Camp Pendleton USA to compete in the US Marine Corps trials, Baker got his first taste of adaptive sports.
Having loathed sport when he was fully able-bodied, he found it gave him an avenue in which to channel his energies.
He applied for the second Invictus games in Orlando, Florida - 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.
Baker became hooked on the combative sport of wheelchair rugby and made the NZDF team for wheelchair rugby, basketball, and archery.
Despite leaving the Army last December for a civilian job as an electrician, he has made it into the 25-strong NZDF team to compete in the September Invictus Games in Toronto.
"With Invictus, they've all got a reason for being there and have been through similar life-changing situations," Baker says.
"You realise you're not the only one."
Now 30, Baker is comfortable in his own skin for the first time in years. He's ready for a relationship with the right woman, and enjoying life on civvy street.
"To me, Army was always infantry. After that, it was never the same. I was ready for a change, I needed to break through.
"And now I'm just a junior sparky. Nobody knows who I am and I have to make my own way up again. I finally feel a sense of direction and purpose. I know where I'm going and I know what I want. It's good, I'm happy."
A sporting chance
The Invictus Games is the only international paralympic-style sporting event for wounded, injured and ill active duty and veteran service members.
Launched by Prince Harry in 2014, the increasingly popular event uses the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate broader awareness of the physical and psychological injuries sustained by wounded service people.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) will send a 25-strong team, with Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata as its patron, to compete in this year's Invictus Games in Toronto, Canada, from September 23-30.
The team will form part of the 550 competitors from 17 countries competing across 12 sports, including wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, golf, sitting volleyball, archery, powerlifting, athletics, swimming, indoor rowing, cycling, and a Jaguar Land Rover driving challenge.
The inaugural Invictus Games in London three years ago was an immediate success, followed by a second event in Florida last year.
"These games have been about seeing competitors sprinting for the finish line with everything they have and then turning around to clap the last person in. These games have been a display of the very best of the human spirit," Prince Harry said.
Where to get help
If you think you or someone you know might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it's important to get help. Talk to your GP or health professional.
• NZDF offers a 24/7 helpline staffed by trained health
professionals available for serving and ex-serving veterans,
all members of the NZDF and their families:
0800 NZDF 4U (0800 693 348 or0800 189 910)