Mick Aston: 'You get stronger every day you're in uniform. And it's no different when you're out.'

Auteur : Movember
In this interview for the Movember Podcast, host and Movember co-founder Adam Garone sits down with a longtime mate and fellow war veteran, Mick Aston. Adam and Mick met in their early 20's, when they were both officers in the Australian Army. Decades later, they dive into their lives of service, and the greatest transitions from military to civilian life.  
 
During his 28 years of service, Mick spent a two-year operational tour in London, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and did two tours in Afghanistan. In 2013, Mick was presented for his second Distinguished Service order, and commended for his service throughout his Afghan tours.   
 
Last year, Mick retired from a career of service. Adam caught up with him to reflect and explore what’s next.  
 
ADAM: Mate, I'm very proud of this, knowing you, but you were awarded the military cross, one of the nation's highest awards for bravery. Can you tell us what led to that award? 
 
MICK: I was awarded the Military Cross for actions in Afghanistan in the Sangin Valley as a company commander. I was surrounded by some brilliant people who did some incredible things. During some pretty difficult combat actions in the Sangin Valley.  
 
You could have given that award to any number of men in that company following a very, very demanding and challenging tour, in 2007, with the First Battalion, the Royal Regiment.  
 
It was a hard tour. It was a tour of a lifetime for a professional soldier. I waited probably twenty years for that experience. I think I was, 36, 37, at the time.  
 
ADAM: So can you paint the picture of what it was like? Did you have an operating base? Perhaps talk us through one of those more challenging and dangerous situations. 
 
MICK: Yeah of course I can. It was early on in the campaign in 2007 and in the British Army's involvement that lasted just over ten years. We were one of the early formations to rotate through Helmand Province in 2007.  
 
One particularly striking event was in a town called Sangin, in the Sangin Valley, at the top of the Helmand River where we spent a lot of time maneuvering in the desert, moving into trouble spots to provide security, to engage with the locals, to train with the Afghan police, and provide that hand on the shoulder to the Afghan Army.  
 
One action, which will stay with me for the rest of my life, is we did our first patrol into Sangin. It was a very, very dangerous town and still is today, ten years later. We set off with about 15 or 16 vehicles in Sangin, and we were going to the base there. As we set off and entered into the town, we stopped at an Afghan Army Base to talk with the British Troops there, and with the Afghans. As we left that base on the main road into Sangin, the 611, just a dirt road surrounded by mud compounds and Sangin's a decent sized tow, we were caught in a large-scale complex, Taliban ambush, which involved about 40 Taliban fighters that were in about seven or eight firing positions.  
 
They had heavy weapons and they initiated the ambush with two rocket propelled grenades that hit the vehicle in front of me and hit one of the most popular and engaging charismatic soldiers and snipers in our company - which nearly killed him. His vehicle was on fire and then basically all hell erupted and we were out in the middle of this perfectly planned ambush. The worst thing to do in those situations, we had to, which is to shoot your way out of an ambush.   
 
There were some remarkable acts of valor that day. One of the private soldiers ran back into that burning vehicle because we weren't sure in the heat of the ambush with that all the soldiers got out of that vehicle on fire and we were concerned that there might have been more wounded or dead soldiers back in that vehicle.  
 
A private soldier ran back through the ambush, carried Private out, brought him back to another vehicle, rendered him, killed a Taliban solder with his pistol in an alleyway who was trying to get in his way. He too was recognized by the Queen for his valor.  
 
It was a tremendous act that unfolded right in front of me.  
 
My vehicle was hit by two RPG’s, injuring the top cover soldier, a young Royal Marine on the top. I got out of the vehicle and out of my armored vest, carried him forward into the ambulance vehicle. I met up with my sergeant major, and had a quick chat in the middle of the ambush as to what we were going to do. We turned the vehicle convoy around and went back to a safe spot.  
 
Unfortunately my vehicle broke down on the way out of the ambush and that was a bit of a tense moment, but when we got back we realized that every armored plate on my vehicle had to be replaced because it had been hit, so it's twelve or fourteen plates on one of the vehicles were in, every one of them had to be replaced.  
 
But that was a really difficult moment. There's a longer story to that but it was the first time as an officer that I felt the loneliness of command. Because when we got back after that, we took eight casualties - couple of guys nearly dead. 
 
We killed about 20 Taliban in the firefight and we followed them up with Apache gunships afterwards, and then we had to do an airstrike on the vehicle to deny it to, because they follow up and take stuff from it. There's still some confusion as to whether we got all the people out of the vehicle. It's complex and a lot of guys were scared. A lot of guys were scared and shaken up after that. And it really dented my team of 120, 130 blokes.  
 
We were in an isolated outpost and didn't have anyone else to talk to. It was the moment, really the first time in my career, and I'd been in twenty years by then, that I really felt the loneliness of command. It really stuck with me, and I thought to myself, I didn't have a commanding officer, like my boss to speak to, because I could only talk to him on a satellite phone.  
 
And everybody was looking at me for what are were going to do next. And a lot of blokes were shaken. Some blokes really shaken, certainly one of the young officers found it really difficult and didn't want to go on. Which I didn't expect, and you gotta work out what you're going to say to these folks to motivate them to go back into the fight, but it dawned on me that that's what being an Army officer is about. It crystallized for me the loneliness of command and this is show time - this is when you step up to the plate. And that's what I did. I have never forgotten that moment.  
 
ADAM: It must be isolating and lonely. How did you deal with that? What did you do to settle yourself and then re-engage your younger officers and the soldiers to focus them, to put their fears behind them, so they can go back out and fight again?  
 
MICK: That's a really good question mate, and I've thought about that particular day and the follow up to it. It's something that has stuck with me and will do for the rest of my life.  
 
After that event, we got back and there are all these casualties and a lot of the blokes were shaken, and not everybody in the company was involved in the action, so they didn't understand and they weren't there.  
 
We did an after-action review and we talked through the whole incident, that's how we came up with those figures for who did what, and where it happened and how it happened and why it happened. So we immediately sought to learn lessons from that action while those still ruler and quite fresh.  
 
But I spent nearly a day thinking nonstop of what to say to the company, because I could see that they were shaken and this was not our first combat action. We'd had some other equally challenging days. 
 
With great success only a couple of weeks previous, what I've just described came at the end of three days of hard fighting where we'd lost already fifteen casualties in the company before we got the Sangin Ambush. 
 
I still remember vividly walking down to the assembled blokes. And that realization is why you're an officer, this is why you're in command, this is why you're in charge, this is what you're being employed to do. But I still wasn't sure what I was going to say, but I knew that this was the moment that I needed to reassure them.  
 
And I came up with a simple message: you have good days and bad days in combat. The idea is to have more good days then you have bad days and despite the casualties and the gravity of the situation. They knew me well enough because I had been in command for two years, commanded the same group of men in Iraq. I reminded them that I was not going to wrap them in cotton wool and that we were going to get back into the fight the next day, because that's what the mission was. That's what was needed. We didn't go all the way out there to help people to shy away - to stay in the base.   
 
What really stuck with me after that was this concept that we have in the military of a mission, and a unifying purpose, and unity of effort. Everybody got behind it and that's stuck with me for the rest of my career. I used it the next time in Afghanistan and elsewhere that bonding people, unifying them behind an idea, a mission, a task or a person. 
 
ADAM: You talked about some casualties in that exchange and through all your deployments, how many men did you lose?  

 
MICK: On that particular tour, in 2007, our battalions had 9 soldiers killed. We had close to sixty battle casualties. But there's been no small sacrifice of the five tours that my battalion did in Afghanistan and elsewhere and across the whole British Army. It's up in the mid 400s, the total number of soldiers, airmen, servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan. It's a big sacrifice and certainly when I went back to command, my battalion, it weighed heavily on my mind. 
 
ADAM: How do you think those losses and casualties have affected you personally? 
 
MICK: It's changed me as a person. Particularly that tour. It changed me in two ways, the first, that it hardened me as a person. It hardened me as a soldier and my outlook.  
 
When you're in that close combat fight, where you are literally fighting for your life, and it's you or them. That is a unique experience. It's not for everybody. It's not for all soldiers either. But when you're in that experience, when you've got that lived experience, you can't change it.  
 
It hardened me as to what was required to keep people alive in combat and to prevail and to achieve a mission.  
 
And secondly, it made me more compassionate because when we got back after that tour and subsequent tours, you have to meet the mothers of young men that were killed in action or young women. Or you have to meet their wife, you have to explain what happened, you have to console them, you have to give them the support. It really hit home to me, the commitment that the nation makes to its military and what price that comes at.  
 
When I went back on my second tour, I was a commanding officer, I had to write a letter to a young soldier's wife who had been killed on the battlefield. That was one of the hardest things I had to do because you have to get it right.  
 
The hardening and the compassion are  on opposite ends of the scale, but as I said earlier it's the context and that really stuck with me. 
 
ADAM: Do you think you've suffered or, or are suffering from PTSD? 
 

MICK: No, I haven't. But many of my soldiers did.  
 
ADAM: For those who aren't familiar with PTSD, how would you describe it? 
 
MICK: That's a difficult question to answer because we reviewed it in my unit quite regularly, on a monthly basis, sometimes with even greater frequency, depending on the progress of those people that were undergoing treatment.  
 
I don’t think I can draw a box around it and say this is what P.T.S.D. is because it's a completely unique affliction that affects people in different ways.  
 
In an infantry battalion, full of young men you would see increased drinking, increased alcohol-related problems which could be marital, relationship, violence, a lack of focus at work, erratic behavior. Which I imagine are not unique to the military. 
 
ADAM: Yeah, it's a perfect example around the gravity of what you're dealing with when you're deployed versus the chores that need to be done at home, and that adjustment is so significant. I've spoken to a lot of soldiers that have returned and struggled with it. 
 
 
I'm really proud of that, through this Movember journey, we've been able to now fund a number of programs supporting active servicemen and veterans with their mental health and helping them transition out. That's, in a small way, how me and the Movember family are contributing to this issue.  
 
I wanted to talk a little bit about that. The numbers of veterans, whether its UK, Australia, US, Canada, that are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, that have taken their life, have suppressed the deaths on the ground in combat, and it's a frightening statistic. What do you think is contributing to that issue?  

 
MICK: It's a dreadful statistic. It would be interesting to explore how many of those returned servicemen and women take their lives while they are still serving versus those that have left the service. I suspect the majority of them fall into the latter category. 
 
It brings into question about how well people transition outside of the military, particularly when they've been in extremely traumatic and difficult situations. I think one of the things that contributes to an uneasy ride, or of the difficulty with making that transition to veterans, particularly those from active service is that there is a sense that people don't understand what they've been through. The only people that do understand were the people in the team that were with them on the day of the journey – on the tour, on the campaign, on the operation.  
 
Trying to explain that to somebody, about what it's like to, to see one of your friends blown up in front of you by an IUD, or what it's like to kill somebody with your rifle at close range zero, or whatever other experience they've had. People just don't understand. I think that's a big contributing factor. It's OK when you’re still serving because you're surrounded by people that have a common lived experience… that have the same narrative because they were there. 
 
But when you leave the service, and you're not surrounded by that familiar organization and structure and ethos and humor and banter and the support networks, I think it would feel quite lonely. There's a feeling that people don't understand what you've been through and you can't explain it to people because it's too difficult to explain, and I understand that perfectly well. 
 
That could be the start of a slippery slope. 
 
ADAM: Another of a really significant transition in a man's life is becoming a dad. How did that change you?  
 
MICK: It changed me a lot. Quite a bit more so than I thought it would. But what I found as it does with every father I suppose, you think everybody has the same experience as yourself.  
 
I know you're a father - you got a little one. 
 
Particularly as a soldier, I was older when I was commanding it, I was commanding a battalion, it gave me a paternal outlook on the young men and women that I was privileged, to be in charge of, and it made me look at things through the lens of fatherhood that I couldn't have done beforehand. It made me think about my own son and about the parents that had sent their kids to join the military and those that found themselves in difficult situations, in close combat. I felt a real responsibility to other parents because I was in charge of their sons and daughters.  
 
I think that made me a more rounded character and certainly a more rounded soldier to be able to look through that, to look through that lens. 
 
ADAM: Being deployed and in such high-risk environments were the consequences are life and death. Did being a dad and a husband, did that make you more conservative in your outlook around risk in the fight or did that make you more resolute?  

 
MICK: It didn't make me more conservative. No it didn't. When we were there in 2007, early on in the campaign, where there was a lot of close fighting, I didn't think about my family a lot. I remember talking to the young soldiers who were you know the 17, 18 year-old guys who were desperately missing their girlfriends.  
 
But they would say, "When are you going to ring your wife, when was the last time you spoke to her?" and I said, "I speak to my wife once a week." And they always want to talk to their girlfriend all the time and send them texts, and I said, "It might sound strange, but I just don't have the time because I'm thinking about you blokes so much. I've got so much on my plate here."  
 
My daughter was only three or four at the time, and I think it had already missed a couple of her birthdays from the first time around from when I was in Iraq. But I had so much on my plate, I didn't think a lot about my family.  
 
But interestingly the second time around, when I was a bit older, I was 42, when we were there in 2012, it didn't affect my tactical judgment or decisions because you got to put all that stuff behind you. I felt the responsibility as the bloke ultimately in command of the battle group, I did feel that responsibility to the parents. And that was a slightly different dynamic.  
 
ADAM: So after 28 years, you've retired from the British Army, how that’s going? 
 
MICK: That's a fairly good question mate and I'm not sure how to answer it.  
 
ADAM: Are you sleeping in now? Not working out? 
 
MICK: I'm definitely a little bit fatter. I haven't got the ponytail yet but I'll have one like yours at some point I'm sure.  
 
It's not as I expected mate. I decided a year ago that it was just the right time for me to do something different. You know? On the right sort of fifty. 
 
And I wanted new challenges.  
 
I don't think I've actually nailed down yet exactly what that is because you spend 28 years in an organization that you are completely familiar with. The cohesiveness, the unity of effort, the common values, the ethos, the humor, the sense of self-worth, value to the nation, responsibility, adventure…  
 
When you leave, as I'm finding now a year on, you miss those things, and— 
 
ADAM: That 28 years is not just professional. It's personal as well. It's all-encompassing. For the most part you're living on a military base and your kids are going to school with kids whose parents are also in the military, so it's all-encompassing, right? 
 
MICK: It absolutely is, and the military, your life in the military it's not a job. It's all consuming. it's a vocation, it's more than just a job, so when you leave, as I'm seeing now, it's completely different.  
 
ADAM: Mate. Have you fixed your washing machine yet? 
 
MICK: I did! I got somebody else to do it. That's why me and Tania are still married. I navigated  through those challenges quite successfully. I think I did. 
 
ADAM: Is Tania liking retired Mick or is she getting tired of you getting around the house?  
 
MICK: Probably a bit of both. I wish I could retire properly. 
 
I'm still on a bit of a search to find out what's next for me because you know business. Business is your next company that you go work for, as a manager or a leader in a corporation. It's not your next regiment, it's not the same and you can't look at it that way because they work differently. It's a different structure. There's different values. It's more of a job, I'm still trying to work that out.  
 
I've had a few jobs in the last year. Far more than I expected that I would have. Three haven't worked out for different reasons and I never foresaw that being the case. I'm just about to move somewhere else and do something different and take the family with me, so— 
 
ADAM: So, mate, picture this. We're in our 90s and we're sitting having a wine and I asking on reflection, what are you most proud of, through your life?  
 
MICK: I'm proud that I've been married for 20 years. And I'm tremendously proud of my wife and what she's done in raising our kids. She's a she's a ten out of ten. I give myself a six and a half on a good day. 
 
ADAM: You were very, very lucky to find her, mate.  
 
MICK: You know that better than anybody else. 
 
ADAM: She's the one that deserves the other military cross. 
 
MICK: Yeah I do remind her of that. I'm a keeper though.  
 
So, you know my military career will fight over the years, but I'll still have the support of my family that's what I'm really proud of.  
 
Close behind that is my service. I'm proud of what I've done. I feel hugely privileged, to meet all the people and served with the people I did and be trusted with the responsibilities that I had.  
 
ADAM: There will be some service men and women that are transitioning back from a deployment or possibly contemplating transitioning out from the military. What bit of advice would you have for them?  
 
MICK: I would say don't underestimate the knowledge, skills and experience that you've gained in the military because whilst it's in a grim setting in the military or in the Army, those skills are valued outside. And I think there is a tendency from, irrespective of what rank you are when you leave whether you're a senior officer or a junior soldier, people see Civvy Street, as if they don't understand it, don't think they'll do well, they don't understand the language and the terminology. But you get bigger, better, stronger every day you're in uniform. And that's no different when you're out.  
 
ADAM: We've been talking about your military career and deployments, and when I asked about what you'd be most proud of in your 90s, and your reflection, you mentioned Tania, and I'm just wondering why that stands out as such an achievement?  

 
MICK: It's something I’m proud of. We've been gone from Australia for nearly 20 years, and that has also come at a price. Our kids don't see their grandparents as much, but what it has meant for us as a family – this is what I'm proud of, and Tania's at the center of this, she's not just the foundation, she's the pillar of our family – is that we've become a really tight little unit. You know the four of us and our dog, and we do everything together. Whether it's a pleasant experience or not we're all in it together. 
 
We've been away from our friends and family that are predominantly back in Australia. We've made new friends in Europe, and in the U.K., and Cyprus and Africa, and elsewhere. But it's really bonded us as a little family unit.  
 
And that's what that's what I'm really proud of. I'm proud of the fact that you know we're coming up to 20 years of marriage. I think it's a good institution. It's kept us together. It's a strong relationship. It's not one that everybody can make work for a variety of reasons but for us it's something I hold dear.  
 
ADAM: Yeah, and you've got to work at it, right? 
 
MICK: Yeah, absolutely. We've both gotten better at it that over the years as you mellow as you get older and you become more tolerant. The challenges that the kids bring, and how much they have, how much they test you. I've got great kids but you know, I'm no better father than the next bloke.  
 
Particularly during the time in uniform, the strain and the burden it put on Tania, she stepped up to the plate when - and she didn't have to. 
  
I’m really proud of her for that because being a military spouse isn’t for everybody.  
 
It's hard, it's demanding and when your husband is in difficult situations or your husband doesn't come back or he comes back wounded, or faces challenges afterwards, mental health, or physically, it's hard. It's hard for wives. It's been hard for my wife as well. So I value that part of the relationship, and I always will. 
 
ADAM: Well, mate, it's been an amazing chat. I want to thank you for your service and for your support of Movember and for your friendship. It means a lot. 
 
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