This is more than just a war story. True, it is about our troops in Afghanistan, where they're doing it tough. Where the last six months have been the deadliest in seven years of fighting against the Taliban.
Liam Bartlett experienced some of that first-hand. Liam’s also been able to get to know the men and women inside the uniforms.
To see their life as it really is. No holds barred, all the commitment, the courage and, yes, the frustration, too. And, just as importantly, we've spent time with the families they left behind. Together, they provide a truly vivid picture of the sacrifice, triumph and tragedy that make up this war.For further information on Australia's contribuition to Afghanistan: www.defence.gov.au
LIAM BARTLETT: A pair of Australian Army Chinooks skim over the jagged mountains of southern Afghanistan. Seven years into the war, it's hotting up like never before so the crew have their trigger fingers poised. Just below us is a tiny village called Kakarak. It's where the Aussie task force have fought some of their most ferocious battles against the Taliban. We've come to see the Australian Army 7th Battalion battle group who are nearing the end of a torrid 8-month tour of duty in the highly dangerous Oruzgan Province.
LIEUTENANT ASHLEY JUDD: It's war fighting, day in day out here, for all personnel here.
CORPORAL LEON GRAY: A province like this is still a very, very dangerous place.
LIAM BARTLETT: It's hard soldiering, isn't it?
CORPORAL LEON GRAY: Yeah, it is.
LIAM BARTLETT: Corporal Leon Gray and Lieutenant Ashley Judd never expected the fighting would be so frequent and so fierce. From their very first patrol it was game on - they were searching a suspected Taliban hideout and found themselves surrounded, the fire-fight caught on Leon's helmet camera.
CORPORAL LEON GRAY: As soon as we were engaged I quickly switched it on and I forgot about it straight after that and we started taking the fight to the enemy.
LIEUTENANT ASHLEY JUDD: We were in a pretty shit spot, honestly. We got to cover, moved forward... ..shortly after that Private Peppi got shot, he got shot in the leg.
LIAM BARTLETT: Were you really worried?
LIEUTENANT ASHLEY JUDD: Yeah, we were actually. We were worried but it never crossed our mind that we wouldn't be able to get out of there.
LIAM BARTLETT: They did get out. Private Peppi was safely evacuated and has since recovered and the Aussies had won their first big encounter.
LIEUTENANT ASHLEY JUDD: That was the worst spot we were in but at the end of the day, while they wanted it, we wanted it more. We're better soldiers than they are and they weren't able to close the gate on us.
LIAM BARTLETT: Since they arrived here last October there've been moments of intense action fighting the enemy and, in between, mind-numbing tedium back at the base camp. In all, there are nearly 2,000 of our soldiers over here and three dogs trained to sniff explosives. As they near the end of the tour, they're getting very homesick... ..so whenever they get the chance, there are precious long-distance calls to loved ones.
LIEUTENANT ASHLEY JUDD: They really should have medals for partners 'cause they do it pretty hard. They're not getting shot at but they feel it.
LIAM BARTLETT: Each day there've been life-and-death decisions on the battlefield but for 24-year-old Lieutenant Judd, the most life-changing moment came while he was on R-and-R with his childhood sweetheart, Eliza Maddock.
ELIZA MADDOCK: We were in Rome on his leave, half way through his tour, we were at the Trevi Fountain and he just popped the question.
LIAM BARTLETT: And you instantly said yes?
ELIZA MADDOCK: I had to think about it but, yeah, I definitely said yes.
LIAM BARTLETT: What's gonna be more terrifying - walking down the aisle or facing off against the Taliban?
LIEUTENANT ASHLEY JUDD: Well, proposing was pretty... proposing actually would rack up there as one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of this tour. So, I dunno, I'm a little bit off walking down the aisle yet, just getting through this, but it'll be up there.
LIAM BARTLETT: Ashley's fiance, Eliza, leads a busy life as an event manager in Sydney, but always lurking in the back of her mind is the thought of those young Aussie soldiers who've paid the ultimate price.
ELIZA MADDOCK: I'm always nervous that someone will call me and tell me that he's died or been injured.
LIAM BARTLETT: And when you've heard about those tragic deaths of Australian soldiers who have perished over there what's the first thing in your mind?
ELIZA MADDOCK: Ash, and also the families who have lost loved ones. It makes me pretty sad to think that such young lives are lost in a war, and that's what makes me worried that why couldn't Ash be the next one.
LIAM BARTLETT: Afghanistan was the incubator of the 9/11 terrorist attacks now nearly eight years ago. To this day, the Taliban, which hosted all 19 of those terrorists, remains a force to be reckoned with. This is the epicentre of Taliban control - the Beluchi Valley. It's birthplace of the Taliban's leader and the Aussies are smack bang here in the thick of it. The valley is a notorious transit route for weapons and drugs. The Australians patrol through poppy fields stretching as far as the eye can see, past men harvesting the resin that produces pure heroin. This is really the Taliban's cash crop?
LEIUTENANT COLONEL SHANE GABRIEL: Yeah, absolutely, it's well documented that the proceeds of these things you see growing here, are processed into drugs.
LIAM BARTLETT: Ship it out to Pakistan or Iran and make lots of money out of it?
LEIUTENANT COLONEL SHANE GABRIEL: Yeah, and it ends up in some poor bastard's arm somewhere in the world.
LIAM BARTLETT: It's hard to fathom, but Lieutenant Colonel Shane Gabriel who commands the Aussie forces here says he has to turn a blind eye to the opium industry. We know that the Taliban, overall, control the crops because that's where they make their money, buy the bullets to fire back at you but you're not allowed to destroy them, that's not your brief?
LEIUTENANT COLONEL SHANE GABRIEL: It's not my mission and, you know, this is our personal perspective, I don't...I think that would be counterproductive.
LIAM BARTLETT: Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel says his main priority is not to destroy, but to build, to develop the province and win over the locals. The soldiers run a trade training school and his men have helped build a new river causeway, a hospital, and this shopping centre with 16 shops - one for each tribe in the valley.
LEIUTENANT COLONEL SHANE GABRIEL: It's pretty good. As an Australian analogy it's a bit like having a Westfield in your own suburb overnight, which might not look much to us but I can tell you, it's a big difference to their lives.
LIAM BARTLETT: But even the best intentions carry extreme risk, everywhere we go there's the threat of the Taliban's deadly trademark - the roadside bomb.
SAPPER BRETT TURLEY: The only way to really be safe, to get the convoy from one place to another, is by searching like we are now.
LIAM BARTLETT: On patrol between Australian bases, our vehicles slow to a crawl as Sapper Brett Turley and his beloved border collie, Gus, search the road ahead. Already, one of these dogs of war has become another casualty of the campaign when he triggered a bomb.
SAPPER BRETT TURLEY: If he sets it off before them he saves lives. That's what he's there for.
LIAM BARTLETT: Safely back at base, Brett showed us how effective Gus's skills are by burying a mine in a training area.
SAPPER BRETT TURLEY: The dog's stood off and indicated.
LIAM BARTLETT: He's smelt that out has he?
SAPPER BRETT TURLEY: Yes, he has smelt it. It's not visible to the naked eye, there's no disturbance. It looks like a pile of dirt to us.
LIAM BARTLETT: His reward is a tennis ball. Has he saved any lives so far over here in Afghanistan?
SAPPER BRETT TURLEY: Yes, he has, yeah. He's found an IED.
LIAM BARTLETT: Well done, Gus, you got a tennis ball for finding a mine. He's a generous bugger, you're handler, isn't he. By far the hardest challenge for the Australians has been mentoring the Afghan National Army. In contrast to our armed forces, the Afghans are best described as a rabble-in-arms. Sergeant Paul Dehnert from Adelaide is briefing an Afghan platoon commander for a patrol. But it will test his patience to the limit. Their task is to set up a road block.
SERGEANT PAUL DEHNERT: These guys need to search every car. They stop, they get the guys out, they search the car they search the people.
LIAM BARTLETT: But while the Afghans are trustworthy, they're hard to motivate.
SERGEANT PAUL DEHNERT: Everyone needs to contribute. At the moment, these guys standing around doing zero and the Australians are (BLEEP) doing everything. Get these guys involved!
LIAM BARTLETT: As we looked on, one of the Afghan soldiers abandoned his post for an unscheduled tea break.
SERGEANT PAUL DEHNERT: What the (BLEEP) is that guy down there with a (BLEEP) teapot.
LIAM BARTLETT: Mate, this mentoring - you've got to have the patience of a saint don't you?
SERGEANT PAUL DEHNERT: Having kids has prepared me well for it.
LIAM BARTLETT: But what the Afghan soldiers are good at is helping to identify the enemy. In this kind of insurgency, telling friend from foe is crucial. Take these guys, I mean, how do you know these four supposed farmers are not going to be firing at you next week?
SERGEANT PAUL DEHNERT: You don't and you can't tell that.
LIAM BARTLETT: Are they Taliban or not?
SERGEANT PAUL DEHNERT: You can't tell. No offence to them but they all look pretty alike to me.
LIAM BARTLETT: And that's been the hardest part of this conflict - there's no front line. The Australians face an enemy that is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. An enemy that has already taken 10 Australian lives. The Taliban know that in a face-to-face battle they're always going to be out-gunned. That's why they specialise in ambushes and random attacks. And it doesn't come much more random than this. Let me tell you about what happened here in an Australian base in the middle of the day. Two rockets were fired from that direction by the Taliban. One explodes just before the main wall, the other comes through sandbags, straight into the side of this metal shipping container, punches a hole in the end and with such ferocity and velocity comes flying through the other side, still without exploding and then straight into the chest of Private Greg Sher standing only five metres away. He took a direct hit and died instantly. Then just over two months ago came the death of Infantry Corporal Matthew 'Hoppy' Hopkins shot by a Taliban lookout during a patrol.
SERGEANT DEAN JOHNSTONE: It was very touch and go, they were surrounding us at that stage.
LIAM BARTLETT: That's a pretty fierce firefight, isn't it?
SERGEANT DEAN JOHNSTONE: It was. It was a very intense 90 minutes.
LIAM BARTLETT: Sergeant Dean Johnstone says his mate Hoppy was hit very early in the fight and suffered a serious head wound. So you knew there was no hope for him?
SERGEANT DEAN JOHNSTONE: Well, it wasn't so much no hope but we knew it was obviously a very serious injury.
VICTORIA HOPKINS: I was actually up late, I was actually typing an email out to Matt because I hadn't heard from him that day and there was a knock at the door. And there were these guys in uniform They said, "Can we please come inside "have you got someone here with you?" And they told me. And I just knew from the looks on their faces that it was bad.
LIAM BARTLETT: Hoppy's widow, Victoria, gave birth to their son Alex four months ago and he came home mid-tour to be her side. He knew his son for just four days before returning to the fighting.
VICTORIA HOPKINS: Matt kept promising me that he was going to come home standing on his feet but I guess, like every other soldier, they can't really keep that sort of promise.
LIAM BARTLETT: A lot of us tend to forget that behind every soldier there's a mum or a dad, a sister, a wife, kids at home.
VICTORIA HOPKINS: All soldiers have families. 'Cause even soldiers need someone to protect them.
LIAM BARTLETT: When little Alex is a bit older, old enough to understand, what will you tell him?
VICTORIA HOPKINS: I'll tell Alex that his Dad was over there trying to help the people over there so that they can live better lives. Like we do, that we take for granted. Build hospitals, schools, helping them have the best lives that they can have too. He went down as a hero, and he is.
LIAM BARTLETT: Soon, these heroes will head home but Australia's commitment means another battalion will take their place. Victory in Afghanistan is far from assured, but this taskforce returns with memories of many small battles won. From a personal perspective do you feel good about this tour?
LIEUTENANT ASHLEY JUDD: Yeah, I'm very proud of well, first of all, the job that my blokes and the other blokes in MRTF have done because I look at the kids. No child deserves to grow up like this and they didn't choose to and if we can leave it a little bit better for them so they can have a few more options, well, I'd be pretty proud to be part of that.