Feature

Jewell in the crossfire: How hero survived horrors of war

WITHIN minutes of the attack, Matina Jewell and her three fellow UN peacekeepers went from monitoring a peace agreement in the Middle East to witnessing full scale war break out around them.

The Aussie soldier was in her last few weeks of a 13-month posting at Patrol Base Khiam in southern Lebanon when Hezbollah - an Islamist militant group based in Lebanon - ambushed an Israeli army vehicle, sparking the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon.

The events that followed would result in Jewell tragically losing all three of her closest colleagues and the soldier sent to replace her, as well as sustaining crippling spinal injuries.

There had been a period of "lull" in Australian defence force activities when Jewell left her home town of Alstonville 12 years earlier to begin her studies at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Jewell was in Year 11 at Alstonville High School when she announced her military ambitions to her parents.

"Really there hadn't been any military action since Vietnam and my parents were very much thinking that there was no way I would, as a woman in the defence force, see military action," she said.

Jewell would go on to do five overseas operational missions - including two tours of active service, serving with the elite US Navy Seals in the Middle East, fast-roping out of Navy helicopters, and be the first female in the Army to complete the physically demanding Navy Diver course.

At just 24 years old, Jewell was in charge of the Army's department on board HMAS Kanimbla, Australia's largest amphibious ship.

As commander of the wharf security team, she was required to fast rope out of helicopters onto docks to secure HMAS Kanimbla docking locations - a skill normally reserved for special forces soldiers (because there are no safety apparatus or repelling harnesses.)

Jewell's distinguished military career culminated in her posting at PB Khiam as part of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation in the Middle East.

"Khiam was considered the most dangerous of all the UN bases in the entire Middle East," she said, "because where we were located was right at the junction of the three countries: Israel, Lebanon and Syria."

After war broke out, Jewell went on to survive 50 near misses to the base.

"For me, personally, there were at least half a dozen times where I really should have died during this war," she said.

At one point, a 155mm high explosive artillery round hit just 15m in front of her.

"The only reason I survived was that it didn't fully detonate," she said.

Jewell was scheduled to go on holidays in Egypt just two days after the war broke out but was told bringing in a replacement would be "too dangerous".

After a further two weeks at the base, Jewell was told she would be rotated off-base to the southern Lebanese port of Tyre - normally a two-hour drive.

But the two-hour trip turned into a two-day nightmare as roads were decimated by bombing, and land-mines ruled out travelling off-road.

The team learnt Israeli fighter jets were due to start bombing the region and the convoy was hurtling towards the relative safety of the Tyre headquarters when a civilian vehicle pulled out in front of them.

"I was on the radio to headquarters and I didn't foresee that my driver was going to do this evasive manoeuvring, and I was thrown into the bullet-proof windscreen of my armoured vehicle, breaking my back in five places," Jewell said.

"When I got into that headquarters, though, all of the UN medical evacuation processes had failed, so then I spent the next two days lying on my back on a tiled floor without any morphine while the UN scrambled to get me a new plan."

After Jewell had been evacuated to a hospital in Cypress, she learnt PB Khiam had been hit by an aerial bomb, tragically killing all four of her team.

In 2009, she was discharged from the army as a result of the injuries she sustained in Lebanon.

Since then, the mother of one - with a second baby due in December - has written a best-selling autobiography, served on the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council for defence and veteran issues, received eight military medals, including two Republic of Lebanon war medals (she is the only Australian to receive these two awards), served on the ANZAC Centenary Commission alongside Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke and travelled the country giving presentations on leadership and resilience.

Jewell now lives in country Victoria.



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