February 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Silver linings

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Having survived Afghanistan as a counterintelligence officer, a traumatised vet and his family lost their farm in the Adelaide Hills bushfires

It was strange for Marc Webb to learn of the assassination of Iranian Major General Soleimani in the newspaper. Marc, who was medically discharged from the Australian military last year after 18 years in various intelligence units, would previously have known before the public. Knowing things before the public was his job. Now, only in his thirties, he’d been retired.

In 2001, Marc was unhappily studying law at the University of Adelaide while working part-time in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. He was 21. Impulsively, though not without logic, he detoured one morning to a military recruitment centre. He nominated the air force, which once employed his grandfather and uncle.

His deadline for accepting membership was September 11, 2001, the night of which he spent working in the restaurant. Marc had already signed his papers. When news of the attacks reached the kitchen, his colleagues shouted, “Marco, Marco, you’re going to war!”

Marc began his military career in signals intelligence – “electronic warfare” – before joining counterintelligence. In secured compounds, Marc analysed reports. Outside them, he performed “domestic ops” and was periodically deployed to South-East Asia. This is as much as he can say. When you cross the airlock of a secured building, you also cross a psychological threshold. To uphold your professional duty, you must cast much of your life in secrecy. You must be willing to partition yourself. From spouses, your children.

Marc couldn’t discuss current affairs with his wife, Rhiann, for fear of confusing something he’d read in a newspaper with something he’d read in a classified report. In fact, any discussion of the news was impossible: a question or comment from his wife might be met with something as subtle, but significant, as a pause or raised brow. There were tells.

Rhiann understood, but this form of quarantine caused early strain in their relationship. Mutual debriefings about each other’s workday weren’t possible. But Rhiann says she signed up to be a military spouse, and that she adapted well. They negotiated. “Find those friction points that don’t work and adapt and overcome,” Marc says. “It’s not about changing who you are, but how you react.”

Rhiann, and Marc’s young daughter from a previous marriage, Estelle, also sacrificed stability. Marc’s deployments were secretive, indefinite, sometimes immediate. Marc’s family sacrificed a lot – more than he did, Marc says – but Rhiann tells me she’d send him back “in an instant. You can’t stop the person you love doing the thing they love. He would thrive over there.”

Marc had thought about Afghanistan since September 11, but he wasn’t deployed there until 2015. “I wasn’t scared until I went on a plane over to Afghanistan,” Marc says. “[Previous] ops weren’t scary. But flying into Afghanistan on a C-130 – yeah. You really feel the descent, because you gotta come in as high as you can, out of range [of fire], then drop as quickly as you can. There was another air force guy, my greatest mentor, who came before me and his flight came under small-arms fire.”

Well before Marc’s deployment to Afghanistan, the US military began installing “aerostats” to its bases there – tethered, unmanned blimps that surveil the immediate land with high-powered cameras. They can be floated thousands of feet; locals called them “American kites”. They were cheaper than drones, and other forces began adopting them.

On October 11, 2015, Marc was stationed at NATO headquarters in Kabul. That afternoon, two RAF Puma HC Mk2 helicopters were returning to base. It should have been routine: no enemy fire, ideal weather. But their landing zone was also an exercise field, then occupied by Afghan soldiers playing football, so they circled the base until it cleared. The second helicopter, with eight onboard, struck one of the blimp’s cables, tilted and crashed. Five men died. “That was the first time I’d seen a biohazard warning, because of the body fluids and smashed-up people,” Marc says. “That was really surreal, to see it in the real world and not a movie. You don’t have time to process it properly.”

Rhiann knew that Marc was clinically traumatised before he did. Marc was in denial. Others saw worse – much worse. I’m fine. I’ll overcome. But as her husband recited lines about his fortitude, Rhiann was quietly setting house rules with her stepdaughter: no balloons, be careful with cutlery, don’t startle your father.

Roarie helps. The offspring of a red labrador and a poodle, he’s exceptionally attuned to people’s anxiety. One of Roarie’s jobs is to gently wake his master when he’s experiencing night terrors. “If I have a nightmare and sleep through it,” Marc explains, “I wake in the morning feeling shit. I’m angry and I don’t even know why. I can’t process it. So Roarie nudges me, and we cuddle, then he disappears. And I know it’s just a dream.”

Marc was discharged in June last year. In August the family moved into their new property nestled in a lush gully of Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills. They named their property Aristaeus Farms for the Greek pastoral god and mythic founder of beekeeping. They would keep hives, poultry. Grow fruit and veg. Marc would cultivate his cherished heirloom seeds. They would also offer free camping to traumatised veterans, and free tutelage in beekeeping, gardening, whatever might help.

If much of Marc’s life was partitioned from his family’s, beekeeping is something they all share. It was Rhiann that first got interested. Marc followed. Then Estelle. All of them can talk about bees for hours. About their collective intelligence, their centrality to our food production, their alarming vulnerability and declining numbers.

There’s therapeutic value too. “Some people look at aquariums and think they’re calming,” Marc says. “Well, for me, bees are like that. The buzz helps drown out the noise, not just of the real world but anything going on in your head.”

They began preparing their property for bushfire. Mowing the long grass; employing arborists to trim trees; widening their narrow, unpaved road by removing encroaching scrub and dead wood. But there was still much to be done before the fire came. They had planned to install sprinklers on their roof; they needed a generator.

On the morning of December 20 last year, the farm’s power went out. This was their first sign of what was coming. Marc drove Estelle and Roarie to safety, in the unthreatened town of Gawler, then picked Rhiann up from work. They drove back to the farm. By now, the winds had changed. They could see the smoke. They grabbed a few belongings, left quickly.

By evening, their home, workshop and sheds were gone.

The Adelaide Hills are extensively damaged. The Cudlee Creek fire killed two, destroyed almost 90 homes, and ravaged the signature vineyards and orchards of the region. By some estimates, a third of the area’s vines are destroyed. From the top of hills you can glimpse charcoal vistas, and also the seeming caprice of fire – razed homes close to untouched ones, blazes that stopped at boundary lines. Gratitude to the Country Fire Service is expressed on handwritten signs perched at the top of long driveways; church signs read “God bless the CFS”.

The one saving grace for the Webbs: 12 of their 15 hives had survived. A few days before I met the couple, more than a hundred people arrived at Aristaeus to help – Marc and Rhiann knew only half of them. An architect has offered to redesign their home for free; others have gifted seeds. “We don’t have much money,” Marc says, “but we’re the richest people we know. I think we’re in the best place possible to have our house burnt down.”

“I agree,” Rhiann says. “I don’t think we could have done this four or five years ago.”

“We would’ve split,” Marc says. “So, silver linings.”

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

Cover image of The Monthly, February 2020
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