Tragic end to Kiwi soldiers' mercy mission
MIKE WATSON, JOELLE DALLY AND CAROLINE KING
Afghanistan was to have been Luke Tamatea's final tour of duty.
The 31-year-old soldier from Kawerau was going to resign from the army after his latest deployment to Afghanistan, according to a friend he grew up with.
But his family and friends will not get to welcome him home the way they had hoped, after Corporal Tamatea was killed alongside medic Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, of Christchurch, and Private Richard Harris, 21, of Pukekohe, while serving in Bamiyan province.
The trio died while transporting a fellow soldier to see a doctor. Their Humvee, which was the last in a convoy of four, was hit by a roadside bomb about 5pm on Sunday (NZ time).
A second bomb was found and disarmed, while the remaining personnel in the patrol secured the area and awaited more support.
The friend of Corporal Tamatea, who was reportedly a father of four, said they spoke briefly before his deployment to Afghanistan with the 2nd/1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment in April.
"He intimated this was to be his last trip . . . I'm pretty shocked about his death."
The attack occurred northwest of Do Abe, near where lance corporals Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer, both 26, were killed in a firefight on August 5.
Corporal Tamatea's grandmother, Loraine O'Brien, said he phoned her after that attack because he knew she would be worried about him.
"He said, ‘Don't worry about me, nana. I'm all right,' and those were his last words to me," she told Maori TV.
"We'd been hoping that [Prime Minister] John Key would have sent him back by now, after the last lot passed away . . .
"I'd just like them all to come back. It's not fair."
Private Harris, who was driving the Humvee, was one of the soldiers who responded to the firefight that killed lance corporals Malone and Durrer. His aunt, Gaylene Harris, said the family were "just devastated" by his death.
"He is the pride and joy of our family [and] he is very special to us all. We were just looking forward to getting him home at the end of his time there."
Private Harris, the youngest of three children, would be buried at Piki Te Aroha Marae, in Rahiri, Hokianga, beside his father, who died when his son was two, Mrs Harris said.
Lance Corporal Baker is the first female New Zealand soldier to have been killed in a combat role and the first female killed in action since the Vietnam War.
She emigrated from the Netherlands when she was a child and joined the army with the belief that "girls can do anything", friend Christine Donk said.
"She gave anything a go - kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, she was always up for an adventure. She was always looking out for the next thing to do. And she always did really well in what she did."
Lance Corporal Baker received a chief of army commendation in 2011 for her professionalism and courage.
Ms Donk said news of her death made her question why New Zealand still had soldiers in Afghanistan.
The same thoughts were playing on the minds of those who lost family during the bloodshed in Afghanistan two weeks ago.
Lance Corporal Durrer's aunt, Ani Lhamo, said yesterday that the losses in Afghanistan were "too great" and there was no shame in withdrawing now to prevent more deaths.
Mr Key did not share those sentiments, saying it would take months, not days, for New Zealand troops to withdraw.
A decision was still to be finalised but it was likely an "orderly withdrawal" would take place early next year, he said.
The New Zealand Defence Force has now lost 10 soldiers in Afghanistan. The bodies of the latest casualties will be flown to Australia before heading home.
- Fairfax Media