Keeping calm under fire saves lives

Published on Mr James McPherson (author)

Topic(s): Australia Day Honours, Counter-terrorism

Chief Petty Officer Paul Mayer is the recipient of a Distinguished Service Medal which was presented to him on Australia Day 2017.  (photo: ABIS Jake Badior)
Chief Petty Officer Paul Mayer is the recipient of a Distinguished Service Medal which was presented to him on Australia Day 2017.

Chief Petty Officer Medic Paul Mayer has been awarded a Distinguished Service Medal in this year's Australia Day Honours for his remarkable efforts in savings lives during a complex attack on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
 
On 7 August 2015 at 10:08pm, Chief Petty Officer Mayer was asleep in his accommodation when insurgents made their attack on a base in Kabul. He coordinated the early stages of the medical response and helped patients through the ordeal.
 
"I'd only been in the country for about a week when I was awoken by a deafening explosion," Chief Petty Officer Mayer said.
 
"I saw a flicker of light outside my window followed by lots of gun fire and more explosions.
 
"There were different rounds and explosions going somewhere near me. It was obviously a coordinated and sustained attack.
 
"I knew with that many rounds and explosions there would be casualties and that I would be needed.
 
"Despite being secure where I was, I couldn't stay there, I had to help and get to the Aid Station so I decided to leave the building.
 
"As I left the building I heard another loud explosion near me and moved as safely as possible, making my way from one building to the next to get to the Aid Station."
 
Chief Petty Officer Mayer would later find out the explosion he heard on leaving the building was a suicide bomber detonating at the front entrance to his accommodation block, the path he elected not to take.
 
"I arrived at the Medical Centre a few minutes later. It was clear that it had been hit. The ceiling had collapsed and it was dark. There was no power.
 
“Wires and lights were hanging down, ceiling insulation was hanging, shelving and cupboards had fallen over. There was a cloud of dust in the air so thick I could taste it.
 
"The fire fight had mostly stopped by now and I heard a US soldier say they hit the main gate.
 
"We had about six rounds go through the area that we had established as the treatment area. The panic and the danger were palpable.
 
"I spotted activity down the corridor, outside the Medical Centre that was destroyed.
 
"I saw my Austrian colleague and another officer attending to two casualties. I went to help and immediately knew the outcome of one of the patients was poor.
 
"I tended to his head injuries while my Austrian mate completed surveying the damage.
 
"Immediately after this patient was treated, another patient was literally dumped in front of me - he had multiple gunshot wounds.
 
"After this, more patients began to arrive. The next patient had gunshot wounds to his flank, the side of his chest and a blast injury, then the next patient dragged in was an Afghan Guard who had taken a gunshot to his shoulder.
 
"More and more patients rolled in and faces started to blend into one another. It was challenging to get any perspective.
 
"We were frantically tending to patients - one after another - mostly head injuries from the ceiling collapse, all while not knowing much about the situation outside.
 
"The hallway started to fill up with bodies on stretchers. We were treating people wherever we could. It was getting messy and overwhelming.
 
"The Doctor hadn't arrived yet, so I kept trying to take overall charge of the scene while still treating and doing rounds on each patient.
 
"It was challenging to do both. My training kicked in and I managed to use combat breathing to control my anxiety and heart rate.
 
"I felt like everything was in slow motion and my hearing was superb that night. I felt like I was in automatic mode, providing treatment through muscle memory. It was a surreal scene.
 
"As time passed, we received more bystanders to assist. They were looking to me for direction, so I tried hard to have the appearance of a duck gliding effortlessly on a pond.
 
"I made jokes to normalise things, like it was just another day in the office, to help calm people around me. Deep down, I was anxious because the base and helicopter landing zone was still unsecure. We could not land helicopters to affect a medivac for about one hour, so we held onto our patients longer than we normally would.
 
"During the evening and morning I felt like the conductor of a musical. I helped to coordinate the cohort of bystanders, keeping everyone calm by introducing myself to patients and bystanders like it was a social gathering.
 
"Without everyone coming to assist, we'd have been in even more trouble. They stepped in and assisted where they could, which was no small effort considering English was not everyone’s first language.
 
"At around the 25 minute mark, the surgeon arrived. He was noticeably injured with cuts and abrasions to his head and was badly concussed. He did an amazing job that night, but was clearly unwell.
 
"When he arrived, we had 18 patients lined up and we continued to prepare them for medical evacuation.
 
"After an hour, the medical evacuations started.
 
"At this stage the dust had settled enough so we evacuated the surgeon as well because he was too injured to continue.
 
"As the second round of patients were ready to be evacuated, the fire fight started up again.
 
"A sleeper had revealed himself and caused more havoc. We had another three injured in the second assault.
 
"While treating them, a United States Lieutenant Colonel whispered into my ear that more insurgents were outside preparing for an assault so prepare for more casualties.
 
"The hallway was a mess, blood soaked clothing, vomit everywhere, needles strewn across the hallway, plastic wrappers everywhere, and body armour kicked into corners.
 
"We prepared for the pending attack. We quickly debriefed on what worked well and prepared for more casualties.
 
"We waited and waited, but the enemy had lost their resolve and they never attacked.
 
"We treated another nine stray casualties over the next day, mainly concussions.
 
"It was later the next day I learned what had happened during the attack.
 
A vehicle borne improvised explosive device with one suicide bomber drove a car rigged with 250 pounds of military grade explosive into the entrance to the camp and caused a breach of the perimeter.
 
"Eight Afghan security guards were injured and some killed from the explosion.
 
"After the breach, insurgents cleared a kill path in the camp, with three entering with suicide vests, grenades, RPGs and AK47s running amok.
 
"One hid behind a car and was the sleeper for a bit over 60 minutes, with the other two leading the initial fire fight.
 
"The attack resulted in 38 casualties, 29 during that evening with another 9 presenting with severe injuries the following day.
 
For his efforts, Chief Petty Officer Mayer was awarded a US Bronze Star Medal and US Combat Action Badge from the Commander, Major General of Special Operations Joint Task Force - Afghanistan.
 
"After nearly 17 years in the Navy, this deployment has been the highlight of my career. I would go back tomorrow if given the chance.
 
"I'm extremely proud of receiving the Distinguished Service Medal, but also saddened because it represents an event where not everyone came home alive.
 
"But more than the medal, I'm proud of being given the greatest honour that can be bestowed upon a service member, which is to have a leadership role in combat and to do it well."