Story transcripts

A Real Fighter

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reporter: Ray Martin

Producer: Shaun Devitt

August, 2010

We are always inspired and humbled by the courage of the men and women of our armed services. And never more so than just recently when Ray Martin had the privilege of meeting a young commando called Damien Thomlinson.

Damien was almost killed when his unit was attacked during a night patrol in Afghanistan. His injuries are horrific, enough to send most of us spiralling into despair and self pity.

But all this bloke wants to do is get back to his regiment and get on with the job. And knowing Damien, who's to say he won't do just that?

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The Commando Welfare Trust

The purpose of the Commando Welfare Trust is to provide discretionary funds through a Board of Trustee's to support the families of serving and ex-serving members of Special Operations Command east coast units, who have been killed or injured in the course of their duty.

While the Departments of Defence and Veteran Affairs are well established to cover this process, the Commando Welfare Trust has been created to support the emergency and long term financial requirements of families in times of hardship, and where grants or entitlements cannot support.

If you would like to contribute please directly deposit your donations into the Commonwealth Bank of Australia account 'COMMANDO WELFARE TRUST', BSB - 062 000, A/C - 1389 8012.

Anyone who would like to donate to the Trust can also do so at the address below: Commando Welfare Trust
C/O 2 Cdo Regt
2 Cdo Regt
Tobruk Lines
Holsworthy Barracks


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Full transcript:


RAY MARTIN: It looks a bit like an ad for Coca Cola. Or Calvin Klein. 20-somethings on the move - cool and unquenchably confident. Today's a bit of R&R for Private Damien Thomlinson and his beautiful Brazilian girlfriend, Latecia. He's unstoppable and he loves a challenge. A fitness fanatic, Damo hits the gym and the pool every day. So down the Perisher slopes, he's suddenly switched from skiing to snowboarding and it's his first day. What makes this likeable larrikin so exceptional is he's got no legs. they were blown off in Afghanistan by a Taliban mine - a roadside blast that should have been fatal.

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: You can feel itches between your toes.

RAY MARTIN: Do you miss them?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: A little bit, I guess. I don't get smelly socks anymore, no blisters, probably won't roll an ankle in the near future, which is good! I really don't notice it. I try not to think about it. It's one of those things - it's a mental game the whole time, which is one where you leave yourself no option but to win. That mental game, you can't let it get on top of you. If I sit there and sort of, "Wow, I miss my legs", or something like that I will stop thinking about something that I have to do that is in front of me.

RAY MARTIN: Now spend five minutes with this bloke and you'll see he's certainly not ordinary. That's why he joined the 2nd Commando regiment, a clandestine band of brothers - until tonight, no pictures of them on the battlefield, no names and no faces, except for the fallen heroes. The truth is, the commandoes have suffered more deaths than any other Australian unit in Afghanistan.

RAY MARTIN: Why would you want to join the commandos - one of the most dangerous jobs in the world?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: As a kid, when you're that age you don't really look at what's a dangerous job. At that stage of my life, I was trying to find what I'd be suited to.

RAY MARTIN: But, 16-23, what had you been doing? Just knocking about?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Wasting time - doing those things that kids do, trying to find their feet, dropping out of things left right and centre.

RAY MARTIN: But you had no direction, no idea what you wanted to do?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Nah, I probably had WORSE than no direction - I was probably going backwards.

DI THOMLINSON, MOTHER: A livewire, very much a bit of a larrikin, unstoppable and very determined - if he wanted to do something, he made sure he did it.

RAY MARTIN: So Damien's parents, Steve and Di, were delighted when at 23 he joined the commandos. They thought that the army might even curb his wild ways.

STEVE THOMLINSON, FATHER: I called him a temporary Australian when he was a kid.

RAY MARTIN: What do you mean "temporary Australian"?

STEVE THOMLINSON: He'd ride motorbikes through the bush at a thousand miles an hour and leap over boulders and, you know, do para... um, what is that stuff - he jumped off cliffs. He just did a whole bunch of stuff that was highly dangerous.

RAY MARTIN: Damien's mum and family can laugh and reminisce now that he is safely back home.

LETICIA DE PAIVA AGOSTINI, GIRLFRIEND: Until I saw him myself I couldn't believe it, you know what I mean?

RAY MARTIN: But that April night patrol last year changed his life forever. What do you remember of that night?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Nothing, absolutely nothing.

RAY MARTIN: What do you remember last - a couple of days before?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Yeah, shadows from days before.

RAY MARTIN: But your mates, the blokes that saved your life that night, what do they say happened?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: There was a lot of dust and obviously debris everywhere, and I was unrecognisable through it. They started to patch people up, and they heard a rasping sound coming from near the car. They just thought I was completely unrecognisable - I looked like debris or something like that. And the rasping sound was me trying to breathe.

DR ANDREW ELLIS: It would've been a bit like having been attacked with an axe by some mad axe murderer.

RAY MARTIN: Damien's surgeon, Andrew Ellis, says it's a medical miracle that he survived the carnage.

DR ANDREW ELLIS: He was bleeding to death, both his legs were partially amputated, he had significant injuries to his upper limbs.

RAY MARTIN: Should he have died?

DR ANDREW ELLIS: He was as about as close to death as you could possibly be.

RAY MARTIN: A colonel in Army Reserves, Dr Ellis has served in Afghanistan himself. It's after midnight, it's dark, there's dust everywhere, there's debris, they're under fire...

DR ANDREW ELLIS: They're in a situation where his mates are having to provide security, they're worried about a second attack on the vehicle, it's dark - I think they did a bloody fantastic job.

RAY MARTIN: Despite his terrible injuries, mum and dad were just happy to see that their only boy was still alive.

DI THOMLINSON: He was a mess.

STEVE THOMLINSON: Oh, yes, horrible mess. But, I mean...

DI THOMLINSON: The smile was still there.

STEVE THOMLINSON: The smile was there and then I knew how lucky we were. You know, we're extremely lucky people - we've still got a son. Couple of guys have been over there and they've made the ultimate sacrifice.

RAY MARTIN: But it's been Damien's rate of recovery that has staggered everybody. Within eight weeks, he was up and walking because he was determined to be on the tarmac for the homecoming of his commando mates - the mates who'd saved his life.

COLONEL PAUL KENNY: I think Damien is probably the worst injured we've had so far.

RAY MARTIN: Colonel Paul Kenny was Damien's boss in the commandos.

COLONEL PAUL KENNY: And his mates were just amazed! The last time they saw him he was almost dead on the helicopter, so for them it was really inspirational to see him stand there welcome them home.

RAY MARTIN: An elite bunch of warriors, there are 400 commandos altogether. They're arguably the toughest and the best trained. they're certainly the highest paid soldiers in the Australian army, along with the SAS. These men are selected not only for their physical abilities but for their mental strength as well.

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: The way I look at what happened to me is, there's two sort of ways you can look at it - you can either basically bow out and give up or you can move forward and continue to do your best at everything that you do.

RAY MARTIN: Damo is a sort of rehab fiend, rebuilding his upper body, and flipping into the lap pool like a human seal.

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Oh, it's amazing. It's just one of those things, I used to swim a lot in summer.

RAY MARTIN: Damo's full leg is worth $70,000. His homemade flipper, about $1.50. His next challenge is to go surfing once again - that's his favourite sport - but like everything he does it will be strictly on his terms.

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: There's that 30m stretch where you're on really soft sand entering the water, which when you're sliding, sort of on your arse, is a little bit, little bit harder than you sort of anticipate when you get down there, so.

RAY MARTIN: So your dad or a mate carrying you out of the surf up the beach is out of the question?

RAY MARTIN: Definitely. You don't need help with anything you do. I'd walk to the water before I'd have someone carry me there. It's the same thing when I fall - the last thing I want is someone's hand to go down to pick me up, you know. It's just one of those guy things, you know.

RAY MARTIN: Like surfing, Damien can no longer ski, but where there's a will there's a way. A quick change of legs and he's out there, only this time, he's surfing the snow.

PETER HIGGINS: Damien's probably the most disabled person that I've dealt with. What we need to do is try to get your body across the snowboard.

RAY MARTIN: Peter Higgins coaches disabled athletes, but even he admits that Damo is kind of special.

PETER HIGGINS: When I first walked up to that van and I saw this fella sitting there with two legs missing and a snowboard laying in front of him, I was shocked - I was, I was really shocked.

RAY MARTIN: You'd never know - look at him now - you'd never know, minus two legs.

PETER HIGGINS: Yeah, like just look at it - he's just steering stilts. It's phenomenal.

RAY MARTIN: But your mates or your mum and dad, if they sat on this rock, they'd say, "I don't believe it."

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Yeah. No doubt they would.

RAY MARTIN: Wouldn't they?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Yeah, definitely, definitely, but, I mean, that's what it's all about, isn't it? I mean if no-one tried stuff and gave it a go, no-one would get anywhere.

RAY MARTIN: And fall over?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Yeah - fall over, get back up, I guess that's it.

RAY MARTIN: Knock this bloke down and he gets back up again - on the slopes or in life.

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: I mean, I lost my legs, but I'd definitely rather me lose my legs than an innocent child or anyone for that matter. I mean, that's the reason we do what we do and don't ask for any recognition or anything of that sort. That's why I'm extremely proud of our people in the Defence Force and the job that they do.

RAY MARTIN: Damien has begun a one-man campaign to raise money for Afghan war veterans, especially for the families of Aussie soldiers who don't come home, because he knows he could so easily been one of them. The weekend tragedy of Trooper Jason Brown - the same age as Damien - brings the Australian death toll in Afghanistan to 18, with more than 140 injured.

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Realistically, I should be dead if it wasn't for dudes having the talent they did around me, which is something I'm going to be in debt to them forever for.

BUILDING UNION REP: $10 levy, that's the motion - anyone in favour? All those in favour, can you raise your hands?

RAY MARTIN: The Builders Union, the CFMEU, pass around the hard hat, kick-starting things with a $1,600 donation, with much more to come.

BUILDING UNION REP: So we're going to support you, and I guarantee we'll all give you attention and make sure you're looked after.

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: To see people being that patriotic, it makes me that proud to be an Australian. You can't ask more than that, can you? It's just so patriotic, It's just the basic ANZAC spirit isn't it?

RAY MARTIN: But believe it or not, Damien now wants to swap the barracks for the battlefield once again.

COLONEL PAUL KENNY: It's difficult to tell no, say no to Damien. You know he's proven us wrong time and time again. I think there are going to be some challenges for him, no doubt, but Damien will always be a commando regardless - he's part of the family and always will be.

RAY MARTIN: But he says he wants to be a commando again and everyone we've talked to says, "We wouldn't put anything past this bloke."

DI THOMLINSON: I'd kill him. I'd kill him if he ever went away again, I think.

RAY MARTIN: A plate of pasta and a glass of red at a beachside cafe is enough to remind Private Damien Thomlinson of an Aussie lifestyle that he says is worth fighting for.

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: Would I have done anything else? Hell, no. I wouldn't change one bit of it. And I'm extremely proud of what I've done, I'm extremely proud of what these guys have done, extremely proud of what every other guy that walks round wearing this beret does. Don't ask for thankyou, they don't expect a thankyou. You do it for people who can't do it for themselves.

RAY MARTIN: Can I say thanks?

PRIVATE DAMIEN THOMLINSON: I guess you can say it to the whole lot of us.

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