Leading in Life

Lieutenant Commander Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson needed more than his training and experience while deployed at South Sudan.

Veteran of 32 years at the Royal Australian Navy, Lieutenant Commander Mark Wilson is officer-in-charge of the Sailors’ Leadership and Management Facility at Garden Island. Graduating from UTS in 2007 with a Masters of Education in Adult Education, Wilson and his 24 staff oversee the training of around 800 sailors.

“I absolutely loved it,” says Wilson of his time at UTS. “I was an instructor, so I was already doing the job. But I had nothing to substantiate what I did from an academic perspective. In fact I’m wondering now if I should go back.”

Wilson would need all of his training, experience and more during a six-month deployment to South Sudan. Assisting the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), his goal was to help keep the peace and foster development within the impoverished African nation. However, heavy fighting in the region forced improvisation, with Wilson acting as a mediator between Indian, Nepalese and South Korean personnel.

There was also a dire shortage of beds to tend to the sick and injured. His camp was designed to accommodate 2000 people over a 72-hour period. But with all the fighting and refugee movements, that number ballooned to 27,000.

“My Australian Colonel, Michael Chadwick, said ‘Mark, you know all that training stuff you used to do? That’s gone. You’re now ‘that’ guy’,” recalls Wilson. “So four and a half of the six months was spent doing those other jobs – triage and remains management.”

“We were in the camp when they were firing. They were strafing. Without trying to sound overly dramatic, I’d never experienced ricochets bouncing around my head, off containers as we were trying to get the hell out of there.”

Wilson’s efforts were recognised at the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours with a Conspicuous Service Medal.

“It was a nice surprise,” says Wilson. He continues, “There’s no training for it. I’m sure there are many capable people out there, but few of us are tested to the point where it really becomes a question of, ‘What would you do?’ At the risk of sounding immodest, I draw some degree of satisfaction from being able to say, ‘Well I was asked the question, and I was able to perform.’”

The moment that weighs most heavily occurred during his last day on the mission. While preparing to leave by helicopter, the camp was attacked by 200 rebels. Wilson was caught in their direct fire, which killed 50 people and injured hundreds more. Miraculously, Wilson wasn’t injured.

“We were in the camp when they were firing. They were strafing,” he recalls. “Without trying to sound overly dramatic, I’d never experienced ricochets bouncing around my head, off containers as we were trying to get the hell out of there. Fifty people were killed on that occasion, with a couple hundred critically injured. It was bedlam.”

Back in Sydney, Wilson is adjusting to normal life and managing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s quite challenging,” he confesses. “It’s an internal wrangle. On most days, I’m okay. But there is the odd day where I don’t really feel like playing.”

Wilson, now aged 54, is eager to find new challenges with plans to join maritime experts at Sea Training Group where he’ll assist in the testing and assessment of navy ships. He’s also thinking about going back out to sea. “I’m 32 years in and there are still things I haven’t done,” he says. “And I still have butterflies when I go out to a new job. It makes no difference whether you’ve been there for a day or 300 days.”

Story and photography by Kevin Cheung