Out of Bamiyan: a soldier's tale
A Nelson soldier who leaves the army tomorrow after a dangerous stint in Afghanistan is planning his next challenge.
"Why sit around and do nothing when your mate has lost their life? You might as well use their spirit to drive you toward what you want to do."
Finley Johnson, 23, is back in Nelson from Afghanistan where he was involved in the August firefight with Taleban insurgents that killed two Kiwi soldiers, including his friend Pralli Durrer.
He is leaving the army, but rather than taking a long break, he is literally throwing himself into another career.
Next month he will move to Perth to complete a skydiving course, which is a natural choice for the adrenaline junkie.
"I am one who believes, ‘If you wanna do something, just do it'. I booked the course in from Afghan. I don't put things off," he said.
"I already knew I was a bit of an adrenaline junkie before I joined the army but it's almost like I like the rush.
"I need some more excitement," he said.
Another motivation for Trooper Johnson was the death of his brother Daniel, one of three teenagers killed in a Marsden Valley car crash in 2010.
"It pushed me to do things I may not have done without his influence - exactly the same motivation as I felt from Pralli's death.
"I am not a big religious person, not spiritual at all, but I definitely used my brother's spirit, or whatever, his loss, to drive me."
He joined the army in 2009 after being part of the ground crew at Nelson Airport. Deciding he needed a new challenge, he saw a job advertised on the New Zealand army website for an LAV (light armoured vehicle) turret gunner.
"That sounds like me," he thought at the time.
"I saw the army as something that could change me up a bit and open my eyes to a few more things and get a bit of travel experience."
Just two years later he found himself standing in the Afghan desert, unaware of the life-changing events about to unfold.
Trooper Johnson spent six months this year with the Kiwi force in northern Afghanistan. At first he was simply staggered by Bamiyan province's surreal landscape of sand, rocks and sun.
"There were huge mountains all around me. It was just different - no green." The days were always hotter than 30 degrees, he said, and he was thankful for the airconditioning in his LAV.
Trooper Johnson was part of a combat unit providing security for local officials and army tradesmen. "We were not trying to change the [Afghan] people at all," he said.
"We were trying to show them how to co-operate with each other so things don't get in the way when they have got projects on."
He said the New Zealand troops were generally well received because they made a real effort to socialise with the locals.
"You've gotta try and make them understand, which is hard when you have got an insurgency over there as well, trying to do the opposite - to show them we are trying to kill the people there, when we weren't there to do that.
"We were there to help them - to show them that insurgency is not always the way to go."
He believed New Zealand troops were as effective as they could have been, given the resources, time and the problems they encountered.
"I am obviously not qualified to say anything about it, but we knew there was another rotation coming in, so we did all we could, from what's been passed on from the last 20 trips that have been there to continue that positive outlook toward the locals, so that when the next rotation come along we have done our bit and they can continue on what happened right from the beginning."
He knew some Kiwis had a negative attitude toward the New Zealand involvement.
"Us, as soldiers, do not judge people who don't like soldiers being over there, or invading other countries or whatever it is. As a soldier we take it with a grain of salt and we know why we are there - to help the Afghan people where we can, as much as we can.
"We were committed to put our lives on the line for the people of Afghanistan, and New Zealand - representing New Zealand in a global front. We were prepared to put our lives on the line for the country and our mates. That's what it's all about for me at the end of the day - the mate next to ya."
But he also knew his Afghanistan stint would be his last.
"I didn't see the army as a career for myself. I just want to advance on with my life, to try and do the best I can for myself and not be too tied down for that."
He said the tour had been life-changing, and preferred to focus on the positive aspects.
"Yeah, some s... happened, but you gotta put it behind you and carry on with your life."
Trooper Johnson said it was the thought of good friends and family in Nelson that kept him positive.
"So when I got off [the plane] in Christchurch . . . my job still wasn't done because I hadn't made it back to my family and friends yet. I just wanted to kiss the ground, to be honest - Nelson soil."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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