This article was published in the Sun-Herald on 24 December 2024.
It was a Christmas to remember, writes Andrew Hastie. As he faced terror, his wife had news.
I felt crushed.
Like a prisoner.
Like the universe had turned cold, closed, dark.
I got up and walked out of the secure facility into the light and fresh air.
It was December 2014.
Christmas was only weeks away.
I had just watched the latest Islamic State propaganda video, and they’d got inside my psychological shield and armour.
I was deployed as an SAS captain to Zarqa, Jordan, a small industrial town about a 40-minute drive north of AmmanCity.
There our small Australian team worked in a multinational taskforce gathering intelligence against IS, which was on a murderous march through Syria and Iraq.
Violence and fear were their weapons, wielded through high-definition camera work and then pushed out to the ends of the earth online.
The IS narrative culminated in a brutal display of mass cruelty and violence in that video.
Almost 20 captives, dressed in blue jump suits, their faces drained of colour and seized with fear, had been beheaded simultaneously with combat knives by young, angry men dressed in combat fatigues.
It shook me to my core.
I was tired after a deployment with the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) to Afghanistan, chasing Taliban leaders and bomb-makers with my troop.
War has its own moral cost, and individuals absorb it in their own way.
Anyone who says otherwise is lying. You try to manage it, as best as you can.
It had already been a busy year. I’d been away from my wife, Ruth, for too much of it.
And when I was home, we’d been going through the West Australian government process to be approved for adoption.
It had been a difficult, deeply personal process, after dealing with years of unexplained infertility.
We desired to build a home with little ones.
We wanted what many Australians want: a family of our own.
In October, the approval for our adoption was confirmed.
No sooner had we absorbed this life changing news than I learnt I was going to be deployed for four months over the Christmas period.
It seemed like things weren’t lining up for us, after all.
We often keep appointments that we don’t make for ourselves, and my deployment to Jordan was no exception.
But Christmas 2014 is one of my most memorable, even though I was apart from Ruth.
A month after arriving, I got an email from Ruth, telling me that she was unwell and wasn’t going to continue playing touch rugby.
I clicked on the attachment.
A positive pregnancy test.
It was an answer to prayer – even after my own hopes for children had faded into faithlessness in prayer.
I had lost hope for having a family and wondered whether it was time for me to leave the military.
To build a life together that would mean we could be closer to family, and more helpful to others.
Ruth’s email brought a smile tomy face. It was typical of her style: understated, dry and cheerful.
But Islamic State’s shadow loomed large over the Middle East.
We still had work to do.
Ruth would do the first 20 weeks of pregnancy without me.
After watching that horrifying IS video, I took in the light and air outside the facility.
It was moments like these that I’d considered taking up smoking.
Some of the most settled, contemplative faces on deployment were those pulling on a cigarette.
But it wasn’t for me.
The gym, and long hours of reading, became my refuge.
Endorphins and perspective were the best tonic, and the best way to sleep.
That Christmas Eve, I attended a church service in AmmanCity.
Police lights flashed outside.
There was a ring of security around the building – provided by King Abdullah II and the Jordanian state – followed by two layers within the facility itself.
At the gate, we were subjected to a full body search and screening.
I found myself uttering a prayer of thanks for the things we take for granted in Australia: security, civic order and freedom of worship.
Still, that service was a place of warmth and hope.
I remember the faces of the people from around the world gathered to celebrate the birth of a child across the Jordan River 2000 years earlier.
I didn’t keep a diary of my time, but I clearly remember that
Christmas Eve – and, of course, the news from Ruth.
It was hope that I felt most.
The good news at the heart of Christmas.
That, despite the hideous deeds I was witnessing, we are not living in a closed universe.
I was reminded that the clouds do disperse, and death’s dark shadows can be put to flight.
Emmanuel has come.
That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.
That’s what I felt to my core in 2014, and I trust it will be the hope for many at Christmas this year.
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