WHEN Trooper Mark Donaldson
showed the extraordinary courage,
character and inner strength that
resulted in him being awarded the
Victoria Cross, it was not the first
Those same qualities
had been forged earlier, in the
mysterious and tragic circumstances
of his family life, circumstances
that utterly transformed him.
Donaldson and his older
brother, Brent, lost both parents
between 1995 and 1998, when the boys
were 16 and 17 respectively.
Friends of the Donaldson
family from the small town of
Dorrigo, near Coffs Harbour, believe
the sudden death by heart attack of
their 47-year-old Vietnam veteran
father, Greg, in a dentist's chair,
sent the "mischievous", "carefree"
and "creative" young boy into a dark
period of introspection and
And the disappearance three
years later, in April 1998, of their
mother Bernadette - who is still
missing and now presumed murdered -
is credited with wrenching Mark
Donaldson from art college in Sydney
after only six months, and
initiating a period of wandering in
the wilderness for the young man.
This period took him from
working on power lines in the Snowy
Mountains to making snow in Canada.
Word of his decision in 2002
to join the army, at the age of 22,
came as a shock to those who knew
him growing up as his mother's son,
full of fun, with a wild streak.
"When I was sent a letter telling me
he'd joined the army I just fell off
the chair," says Bob Denner, the
secretary of Dorrigo RSL sub-branch.
Denner, a former lieutenant,
served in Greg Donaldson's unit in
Vietnam, 176 Air Despatch, though at
a different time. As a member of
Legacy, he helped look after Mark
and Brent when Greg suddenly died.
Denner became Bernadette Donaldson's
legatee, and the boys, Mark and
Brent, became junior legatee wards
at the Coffs Harbour Legacy Club.
"He'd sort of slipped away
before the HSC." Denner says. "And I
just thought Mark was not the sort
of person to join the army at all.
He was fiercely independent, a
typical country boy. And there was a
real softness about Mark, too. I
remember he 'inherited' a Kelpie
puppy, shortly after the loss of
Bernadette, that he loved. But he
wasn't someone, from my recollection
of his relationship with his dad,
who responded to discipline and
Mark's early nonconformity was
evident at school.
When one old school friend,
who does not wish to be named, saw
"a clean-cut, super-fit looking"
Donaldson on the television
receiving his Victoria Cross last
week he could barely believe the
transformation from the year 12
student at Dorrigo High School who
had just lost his father.
The Mark Donaldson he remembers
was "an anti-authority,
anti-military sort of guy with wild
hair" who "painted black pictures of
whose manner and
appearance attracted mockery from
other students, but whose ability at
martial arts meant that comments
eventually came at a cost.
"I was in year 10 and I knew
to stay out of his road. Other kids
would want to pick on him. And I
remember my design and technology
teacher telling this young kid to
leave Mark alone because 'he'll take
it, and he'll take it, but one day
he'll floor you'. This was like a
red rag to a bull for this kid, who
went straight after Mark, who
finally just gave this kid a
split-kick to the guts and just
"When the kid went back to the
teacher to tell him what had
happened, the teacher just said,
'Well, I told you.'
"If I saw Mark now I'd say to
him, 'Wow, awesome! You've just done
Brent Donaldson, a physical
education teacher, said he and his
family were extremely proud of his
"The events that happened had
an effect, as it would on anyone,
and I don't think it matters at what
age it happens," he says of the loss
of their parents. "I think for us it
gave us a more steely resolve and a
His brother's joining the army
had surprised him.
"He was definitely good at
art, and that's a tack we were
thinking he might take. But he still
always had loved running, and being
outside. And being in a country town
you do a bit of everything. You
don't specialise like you do in
cities, just finding friends who
like one thing, because if you did
you'd have no friends."
Mark Donaldson's enlistment in
the army made some sense to a family
friend, Jo Beaumont, 52.
Along with a former Dorrigo
GP, Peter Vandyke, who trained the
boys in rugby, Jo Beaumont and her
husband Gary were the only Dorrigo
representatives Mark invited to his
VC ceremony last week.
After the death of both
parents, the Beaumonts looked after
the boys. Greg Donaldson and Gary
Beaumont had grown close while
fishing in local streams, sometimes
The Beaumonts remember the
family as hard workers, with
Bernadette taking on three jobs at
one stage. "Both boys had very high
work ethics as a result."
Jo Beaumont, who lost an
11-year-old son 20 years ago, sees
Mark's decision to join the army as
a turn towards the stability of his
"He got a bit rebellious there
at one stage, but nothing out of the
ordinary, and it probably had a lot
to do with losing his mum, as it
would. But at 15 I didn't ever think
he'd take an army career. But
there's probably another family for
him there in the army, in the SAS,
the discipline of his dad."
The townsfolk of Dorrigo
fiercely protect the Donaldson boys'
privacy, and especially the memory
of their parents.
In November the police
reopened the case of Bernadette
Donaldson, digging in bushland
In 1998 traces of her blood
were found in the car of Christopher
Watt, the branch manager of the
Banana Coast Credit Union in
The two had struck up a
friendship after Bernadette was
widowed and working in the Bellingen
Shire Council office. Days after
Bernadette went missing Watt
committed suicide by drug overdose
"I know Mark is very, very
private, which is something I want
to respect," Jo Beaumont says. "At
the ceremony I was talking to
another SAS soldier who was at our
table, and he asked me, 'Where are
Mark's parents?' Mark hadn't even