An Extraordinary Man: Damien Thomlinson
Photography Justin Ridler. Styling Melissa Boyle.
Former commando Damien Thomlinson
on the restlessness of youth
and acceptance of adulthood
The weapon that blew Damien Thomlinson up was likely an old Russian anti-tank mine: a throwback weapon from a different time of war. Unlike many of the explosives the Taliban use, full of jagged scrap metal designed to kill and maim, the mine that exploded under Thomlinson was built only to damage − a teardrop explosive designed to disable a tank, with any death or injury purely a by-product.
This weapon worked with vicious efficacy. The blast put a hole clean through the multi-ton Special Reconnaissance Vehicle (SRV) Thomlinson was driving. The two passengers were thrown from the open-top vehicle and onto the Afghan dust. They suffered superficial cuts and punctured eardrums. Thomlinson, meanwhile, sitting in the driver’s seat, bore all the kinetic energy left from the bomb after it had penetrated the vehicle’s undercarriage.
It got his legs first, tearing his right leg clean off, pulping the left, flattening the foot and calf and breaking most of the bones. As it moved up his body it smashed into his body armour, blowing the breath from his lungs and his arms backwards with the force of a pneumatic press. His right elbow joint was blown out, his arm left kinking in the wrong direction. It also broke his arms in multiple places and severely dislocated his right shoulder. Finally, the blast got to Thomlinson’s head, which snapped back with almost unimaginable g-forces, sending him into a state of merciful unconsciousness.
The young commando would not wake properly until he was in hospital in Germany. His life would never be the same again. Unless you noticed his slightly abnormal gait or caught him wearing shorts, you wouldn’t have any idea about the medical trials he’s been through. He stands tall, looks very fit and wears a handsome smile below a well-styled flop of blonde hair. Even at 35 there are still traces of the carefree teenage Thomlinson.
Photography Justin Ridler
Growing up in Terrigal on the NSW Central Coast, he was more concerned with girls and sport than schoolwork. A keen cricketer, he’d play all weekend in summer and roll into school on Monday exhausted and ready to take it easy. After leaving school, Thomlinson enjoyed a laidback life of parties, pubs, beaches and sport, getting by with casual labouring jobs while he lived at home with his parents. “I’d always been keen to waste every bit of intellect I was given,” he says.
This remained the case until Thomlinson started seeing his friends splitting into two camps; those who would stay on the coast and those who would leave in search of something else. “A mate who came home having been [away] at university … told me stories of his studies and a band he was in, and I really started to wonder if the world was bigger than the Central Coast.” Thomlinson was looking for ways to expand his world but, with poor school marks and little work experience, his options were limited.
He wasn’t a discipline guy. He had a low tolerance for boredom and wanted to push his intellectual limits. He regretted wasting his school years but he didn’t think the army fit the bill, so he didn’t consider it an option. Then one day he came across the Special Forces entry page online. On the page was an image of four soldiers facing an Afghan ridgeline, M4 assault rifles in hand and the armour and webbing required for battle hanging off their bodies. The Army was looking for civilians with high IQs and athletic ability to join the Australian Commando unit. There was a rigorous weeding-out process, but only some high school study was required.
“When I was a kid I thought I wanted to be the guy up in front of a camera being looked at, but when I saw that website I realised I wanted to be the guy behind the scenes, with the black bar over my eyes in photographs,” he says, referring to the protected identity status that Australian Special Forces personnel have while serving. “More than anything, though, I craved a sense of achievement and this would be achievement on a national scale,” he says.
Photography Justin Ridler
The full-time commando unit (then called 4 RAR and now called the 2nd Commando Regiment) had just recently started taking on candidates from the public, having previously recruited directly from another unit. Thomlinson knew that passing the barrier test and entry courses was going to be exceptionally tough going as a civilian, but that was just the kind of challenge he was looking for.
After filing his application, Thomlinson threw himself into training. He passed the 24-hour barrier test on his first try and, with only a few hitches, worked his way through the boot camp and courses required to be given the revered Sherwood green beret, bearing the unit’s double diamond and dagger insignia.
“Before I joined I thought that getting the beret would be an accomplishment, but when I got there I knew the work had only [just] started,” says Thomlinson.
His first deployment was in Fiji, where he began to understand the stakes of Special Forces soldiering. Sitting on the deck of the HMAS Kanimbla, waiting for a coup to play itself out, Thomlinson and the rest of the commandos were “bored as hell”. Then they heard the violent sound of metal on metal. Thomlinson saw broken rotor blades fly past him.
“TAKE COVER!” yelled one of the soldiers.
A Black Hawk helicopter had careered into the deck, skipping off the landing platform and smashing into the water. Two soldiers were killed, including Josh Porter, an SASR trooper Thomlinson used to play cricket with before they’d joined the army.
“That was my first taste of how serious the work was,” he says. At that time there had been exactly one Australian Special Forces solider killed in Afghanistan. But after that incident, deaths occurred with sickening regularity. In 2009, Thomlinson and his company were told that it would soon be time for them to rotate into the Afghan theatre. Legends were born in Uruzgan, the patch of Afghanistan for which Australia bore responsibility. Thomlinson says it was like being in a footy team and being called up from the reserves to the premiership.
“This is what we’d been training for all these years, and we all knew Afghanistan was the proving ground. I got as fit as possible and the training intensity picked up. Everything we did from that point was with urgency and purpose.”
Photography Justin Ridler
When he arrived in Tarin Kot – the base of Australian operations in Afghanistan – Thomlinson was very quickly introduced to the kinetic nature of the Afghan conflict. A few days in, as a convoy of vehicles paused on a ridgeline, he was on sentry duty when he saw a puff of dust pop up a couple of kilometres in the distance.
That’s strange, he thought.
“Hey Dave,” Thomlinson yelled to a fellow commando. “DAVE…Are we test firing mortars?”
There was another puff of dust, a few hundred metres closer. The Taliban was firing M107 mortars at the Australian vehicles. None of the munitions came very close, but it was an instructive moment for Thomlinson – danger was never far away.
Thomlinson would be in a number of contacts during his short deployment, with most being fatal for the enemy.
One day in late March he was out on patrol with some of the Incident Response Regiment, a part of the Special Operations Command detailed with responding to nuclear, chemical, biological and explosive threats. He heard chatter on the radio saying that the Individual Ready Reserve team had identified an improvised explosive device (IED) that they were going to detonate. He and the other commandos took cover; there was a countdown and then a surprisingly insipid pop.
“I remember looking ... at one of the other guys. He said, ‘That didn’t sound big enough.’ I agreed.”
Then the report of a giant explosion shook the convoy.
“Alpha this is Sierra, we have a KIA,” a voice came over the radio.
“A f**king what?” another voice asked.
The IED was a decoy for another, much larger explosive set to kill the minesweeper. The KIA (Killed In
Action) was 31-year-old seargent Brett Till. This incident cast a pall over the base, coming as it did just three days after 21-year-old Australian corporal Mathew Hopkins had been killed when his patrol was ambushed by a group of Taliban fighters wielding machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
But there was little time for grief. There was still a job to be done and any feelings of loss needed to be redirected into purpose and aggression. Soon Thomlinson and his company were back on operations and a week later they were sent out to help conduct an assault. The unit was tasked with a direct action – an offensive operation with the goal of capturing or killing a high-value target: “We were moving up supporting a sniper platoon that was, in turn, supporting the assault,” he says.
Thomlinson was one of the drivers in a large convoy, heading to an overwatch position where his would be ready to direct fire at any enemy that might threaten the snipers or the assault force. As the convoy moved into position, the snipers watched them work their way towards a spur line and through a bottleneck.
“We should have swept this,” one of the snipers said in the planning stage of the mission. “If I was going to plant something, this is where I would do it.”
Former commando Damien Thomlinson with Mr Jones editor Ben Mckelvey. Photography Justin Ridler.
Everyone agreed that it would have been a good idea, but also that there was no time to sweep for mines. Direct action assaults require the element of surprise. Driving the fifth car in the convoy, Thomlinson figured he and his passengers would be safe as long as they stayed in the tracks of the vehicle in front: “I remember I was concentrating hard on driving in the tracks in front of me...”
Thomlinson recalls nothing from his time in Afghanistan after the explosion, though he did wake a few times while being treated and evacuated. He has been told about the monumental efforts and split-second medical decisions made by his fellow commandos after the explosion, but doesn’t yet have a full picture of what happened. He can’t bring himself to force his friends to revisit one the worst moments of their lives. As far as he is concerned, the details are immaterial. Thanks to his mates, he is alive.
After receiving treatment in Germany, Thomlinson was flown to Sydney and relocated to a rehabilitation hospital, where the only thought on his mind was getting back to Afghanistan and back to his unit. His doctors told him in no uncertain terms that he would never be deployed again, but this didn’t mean much to him at the time. He attacked each milestone – being able to move around on his own, to use a normal toilet – with the zeal and efficiency typical of a Special Forces soldier.
After discharging himself from hospital, Thomlinson worked towards two goals: one short-term and one long term. The short-term goal was to be standing tall, not sitting in his wheelchair, when he greeted the men who worked to save his life as they landed in Sydney after finishing their Afghan tour. The long-term goal was to get back there, to be shoulder to shoulder with his company when they were redeployed.
The short-term goal he achieved.
“As I did rehab I kept thinking, [I’m not] going to be in a wheelchair when I [greet] them at the airport. And I wasn’t. I was standing there, with a walking stick, ready to shake their hands. When [I] did, it was one of the most fulfilling things I’d done in my life. When I shook hands with them, it was as though all the pain of what had happened disappeared.”
As for his long-term goal, the unit welcomed him back and the higher-ups eventually said he might be able to rotate back to Afghanistan after all, but in a desk job, not in the offensive role he had trained for. Offence is the defining characteristic of a commando. Just as greyhounds run and dolphins swim, commandos attack.
He left the unit in 2010.
Nevertheless, the aimless soul from Terrigal was long gone. Thomlinson instantly attacked a number of new goals. In 2011 he walked the Kokoda Track, doing the 96km distance on rubber prosthetic legs. He started snowboarding again and travelled to Colorado to train with a team of former American soldiers with injuries similar to his. He also started rally driving, competing twice in the Targa Tasmania.
Thomlinson was doing everything with breakneck speed, determined to reject the sedentary life that some expected him to live. But he was drinking, too. He was drinking so much that he broke his arm while three sheets to the wind on a night out. Then in 2013 he broke his back snowboarding.
“I was forced to take stock,” he admits. “Things had been just a little too extreme ... I started to think, what [do] I really want? What [am] I trying to prove?”
Eventually, a new personal philosophy emerged, told to Damien by actor Andrew Garfield, the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”.
Life changed again. He co-authored his memoir Without Warning and took on mentoring and support roles in organisations like Soldier On and the Commando Welfare Trust. He also started taking acting classes, winning a small role in Mel Gibson’s critically-acclaimed 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge. Thomlinson also got married and that, he says, has been the biggest step so far towards serenity.