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More Defence news: 22 September 2009 - 27 September 2009

Aussie soldier leads the way out of minefields for poor Afghans, offering new hope | Aussie and Dutch Soldiers save lives in Afghanistan | Finals fever hits the Middle East | Navy disarms pirates | Lives saved, bravery recognised | Sydney returns home | East Timor mission marks 10th anniversary

Aussie soldier leads the way out of minefields for poor Afghans, offering new hope

25 September - Afghan civilians who previously risked life and limb scrounging for scrap metal in minefields now have an opportunity to enjoy a safer life and work in paid jobs, thanks to efforts led by an Australian soldier serving with the United States (US) military.

Major Dave Bergman, an Army combat engineer from Melbourne, is the officer in charge of the Mine Action Centre, a detachment of mainly US military personnel which is focused on demining operations in and around the massive Bagram Air Field in Northern Afghanistan.

Landmines continue to saturate the landscape of Afghanistan more than any other country on Earth. Informed estimates suggest that as many as 20 million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines were laid during the Soviet occupation and the later conflict between the Taliban and Northern Alliance.

Over the past six years, more than 200,000 landmines have been cleared in and around Bagram Air Base, but it is a slow, tedious, dirty and dangerous job. Hundreds of Afghans are already employed as deminers by government agencies and private contractors, but there are other civilians so poor, unskilled or young who are prepared to risk everything by venturing into the minefields in search of scrap metal.

Aware of the high rate of injuries caused by landmines being handled by non-qualified people, Major Bergman decided to look for ways to get the scavengers off the minefields while still allowing them to make a living.

“People wandering through the minefields present a danger to the deminers as well as themselves,” Major Bergman said.

“I know of one man who has been blown up four times and now has a prosthetic leg simply from gathering scrap metal in the minefields in order to make enough money to feed his family.”

The Mine Action Centre approached Hemaya Brothers International Demining Company, an Afghan-owned demining company, and developed a joint approach to address the unemployment issue. The result is a number of pilot programs that have begun over recent months.

Major Bergman is relieved that many of those who previously searched for scrap metal in the minefields now have a safer way to make a living.

“Hemaya Brothers International Demining Company has established a demilitarisation program which recycles munitions from the minefields in a safe and secure manner as well as a carpentry program that teaches new skills and provides products for the community,” Major Bergman said.

“The demilitarisation program employs five people. Three qualified carpenters are employed in the carpentry program to teach up to ten locals who all have a mine-related disability.”

“It’s wonderful to see an Afghan-owned company empowered and successful enough to be taking the lead and finding solutions to help the citizens of this country in such a way,” he said.

Major Bergman and the Mine Action Centre have also been at the forefront of negotiations to establish a medical outreach program and secure jobs on Bagram Air Base for the bread winners of poor families whose only other source of income would be to tend animals in the minefields or scrounge for scrap metal.    

On average two civilians per week are injured by landmine explosions in the Bagram area. The significance of the new programs and the hope they bring for a better life is highlighted by the tragedy inflicted upon Romina, a 12-year old Afghan mine victim.

“I was herding our cows in a field and they started straying,” Romina said through an interpreter.

“All I remember is swatting them and the next thing I know I am on the ground and my sister is lying a little way from me bleeding. I didn’t even realise my leg was gone until I looked over and saw it.”

Left untouched, the mines littering Afghanistan will still pose a danger decades from now. Landmines are also often used by insurgents to make homemade bombs, otherwise known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Therefore, reducing the number of mines helps lower the threat and protect the Afghan population and troops of the International Security Assistance Force.

Dave Bergman commands a team of seven American servicemen and women and has oversight of more than 500 military and contractor personnel who support the demining effort on and off Bagram Air Base. He is passionate about his work, even to the point of learning Dari prior to leaving Australia so he could communicate with the Afghan people in their native tongue, instilling a sense of trust and confidence and forming bonds of friendship.

He says that for an Australian to be chosen to lead Americans in an operational area is a huge personal honour as well as recognition of the Australian Army’s capability in combat engineering.

“Personally, being able to bring about influence for the better by implementing programs that help the Afghan people is extremely rewarding. More than 72,000 displaced civilians have so far been able to return home as a result of landmines being removed and we’re reducing the risk faced by those who would otherwise scavenge in the minefields,” Major Bergman said.

“Professionally, it is a huge responsibility to lead and put soldiers from another nation at risk, but the opportunity for Australia to provide the officer in charge of the Mine Action Centre allows us to wield influence in the community and the international coalition. In turn the Army and Australian Defence Force is gaining invaluable knowledge and experience in this type of work.”

Major Bergman will soon leave Afghanistan but he’ll be replaced by another Australian Army engineer officer, continuing what has now become a proud and significant contribution to the international coalition by Australia.

Aussie and Dutch Soldiers save lives in Afghanistan

25 September - Australian and Dutch soldiers serving in Afghanistan have helped save the lives of local Afghan National Police (ANP) who had been injured in a recent improvised explosive attack.

Soldiers from the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT) and the Netherlands Police Mentor Team based in Chora, attended to multiple casualties after an Improvised Explosive Device attack on 16 September in Sarab.
The members of the ANP were stabilised and treated before being evacuated by helicopter to a medical facility at Tarin Kowt.
The Australian soldiers are part of the second rotation of the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force and the Australian Defence Force’s contribution to Coalition efforts against global terrorism.

More: Image Gallery

Finals fever hits the Middle East

Bring on the game - soldiers from Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force 2 (MRTF-2), look forward to the NRL Grand Final. L to R: Sergeant Matt Oxford, Corporal Jeff Burton and Sergeant Mark Muller.

24 September - Australian troops serving in the Middle East and Afghanistan are gearing up to support their teams in this year’s AFL and NRL finals.

From remote forward operating bases deep in the Chora Valley in southern Afghanistan, to bigger bases at Tarin Kowt and Kandahar and across the wider Middle East, and even off the African coast on board HMAS Toowoomba, Australian military personnel will be watching, listening, reading about or discussing the footy finals.

Colonel Lindsay Morton in the Middle East Area of Operations said that while the personnel are obviously focused on current operations, many are closely following their team’s progress.

“Our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women are working around the clock in some pretty tough and uncomfortable conditions, so any reminder of home is something everyone likes,” Colonel Morton said.

“And footy – whatever the code – is something most people enjoy to watch, support and discuss, especially at this time of the year.

“In some locations the troops may be able to see the games live, in others they’ll be following it over the internet or on radio.”

Colonel Morton said that no matter what teams make it to the grand finals, the best wishes from all personnel deployed across the Middle East and Afghanistan will be with those teams.

“Footy is a great part of the Australian way of life and we wish all players, teams and coaches the best of luck in their finals campaign,” Colonel Morton said.

And as for Grand Final Day itself, the various units will be doing different things depending on their operational commitments at the time.

“Some units and troops may be able to enjoy a BBQ breakfast and watch the game live, while others will be on patrol or duty,” Colonel Morton said.

More: Image Gallery

Navy disarms pirates

 HMAS Toowoomba Boarding Party conducts a thorough and effective search.

23 September - HMAS Toowoomba has successfully stopped a piracy attack by conducting a boarding of a suspect vessel off the coast of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden.

After receiving an emergency call for assistance from the Merchant Vessel BBC Portugal, HMAS Toowoomba immediately responded by moving to the scene at high speed to investigate and provide assistance.

The Commander of HMAS Toowoomba, Commander Ivan Ingham, launched a boarding team to investigate the suspected vessel.

“The quick response by HMAS Toowoomba and the coalition helicopter ensured that the incident did not escalate into a direct attack on the merchant vessel,” Commander Ingham said.

“Further, the ships’ presence in very close proximity to the scene ensured that the persons suspected of planning acts of piracy were not able to resist the arrival of our boarding party and ensured that our teams were able to conduct a thorough and effective search.”

The search of the suspect vessel revealed a cache of weapons including a Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher (RPG), six AK47 Assault Rifles, a G3 Assault Rifle and a large quantity of ammunition.

Routine questioning of the persons suspected of planning acts of piracy by Toowoomba’s boarding party confirmed that the occupants of the suspect vessel were from nearby Somalia.

“With the incident averted and the threat removed, we directed them to depart from the shipping lanes of the International Recommended Transit Corridor and sent them back to where they came from,” Commander Ingham said.

HMAS Toowoomba is now continuing with counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden region.

Australia’s contribution to international counter-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa includes three embedded staff officers at the Coalition Force Maritime Component Command Headquarters, two RAAF AP-3C maritime patrol aircraft and the Anzac Class frigate, HMAS Toowoomba.

More: Media Release | Image Gallery

Lives saved, bravery recognised

Sergeant Damion King renders assistance after an Army ambulance submerged in a flooded road way in the Northern Territory.
Click on image for an enlarged version.

22 September - Sergeant Damion King of 1st Combat Services Support Regiment has received a Commendation for Brave Conduct after rescuing two personnel from a submerged army ambulance in February 2008.

Privates Matthew Pullen and Aimian Magyak were driving the vehicle as part of a driving course, and had to negotiate a flooded roadway after their convoy passed Corroboree Park in the Northern Territory.

When their vehicle was swept off the road into the flooded creek, the vehicle immediately took on water and the cabin of the vehicle was entirely submerged. Sergeant King was travelling in the vehicle behind the ambulance, and when he saw what happened, immediately jumped into the water to assist.

As a result of Sergeant King’s actions, Privates Pullen and Magyak were safely returned to the roadside and the vehicle was later recovered by the unit’s recovery element.

For the full story, see the latest edition of Army News.

Sydney returns home

21 September - The Royal Australian Navy ship HMAS Sydney has returned to her namesake city after an international deployment that took her ship’s company to ports across the globe.

The Minister for Defence, Senator John Faulkner, said that while the deployment provided extensive training and development for the 230 crew members individually, the ship itself provided an excellent platform to promote Australian products and export trade.

“I congratulate the crew of Sydney on their professionalism during the deployment which saw the ship undertake a range of tasks in support of Australia’s diplomatic, international security and defence industry interests in Western Europe, North America and North Asia,” Senator Faulkner said.

“I am confident that this deployment has provided the ground work to assist Australian defence industry exports as well as a variety of national interests.”

The Adelaide Class frigate sailed from Sydney in April, and in-company with HMAS Ballarat, made her first port visit to Cochin India, where the ships further enhanced Australia’s close relationship with India.

The Commanding Officer of HMAS Sydney, Captain Peter Leavy, said that while the deployment was an exciting opportunity for members of Sydney to see the globe, the program kept everyone on board very busy.

“One highlight for the crew was the opportunity to sail past the Statue of Liberty,” Captain Leavy said.

East Timor mission marks 10th anniversary

21 September - The courage and professionalism of Australian and coalition troops was recongnised at the weekend as part of the 10th Anniversary of INTERFET—the Australian-led International Force for East Timor.

The Minister for Defence, Senator John Faulkner, said that the speed and effectiveness of Australian forces in stemming the violence during the early days of INTERFET was a testimony to the quality and professionalism of Australian troops.

“All INTERFET veterans, many of whom were deployed more than once to East Timor, should be particularly proud of the contribution they have made to regional security efforts,” Senator Faulkner said.

Around 5,700 Australian troops were deployed as part of the mission, making it the largest deployment of Australian troops since Vietnam.  

Australian forces were ably supported by troops drawn from 21 regional and international partners.

“They served their country with distinction and on the 10th Anniversary of INTERFET, we recall and honour their service,” Senator Faulkner said.

The work of INTERFET and its following missions have been crucial in establishing the security conditions necessary for the nation’s building efforts. 

“Australia looks forward to a continued partnership with the government of East Timor, the United Nations and the international community to further consolidate stability in East Timor,” Senator Faulkner said.