Suspense, action, drama and even romance – the Matina Jewell story could come straight from the script of the Hollywood blockbuster. However, the unassuming blonde – who broke down gender barriers on her rapid ascent through the defence force – knows some of the most important parts of her story happened behind the scenes.
A career in the Armed Forces seemed an unlikely choice for the girl from Alstonville, a small hinterland town on the outskirts of Byron Bay. Matina, 38, and older brother Mark enjoyed an outdoorsy upbringing by the beach in what she describes as an idyllic childhood with her mother Helen and schoolteacher father Roger. Aside from her grandfather, who served in World War II, there were no strong family ties to the defence force. But that all changed when, at age 16, Matina travelled to China to represent Australia in a junior volleyball championship.
"Coming from Byron Bay into the indoor most population of Shanghai was an eye-opening experience. I would speak to my opponents who were fascinated by the fact that in Australia I could see stars in the sky at night. That cultural diversity focused me on what I wanted to do for a career," explains Matina. It was the humanitarian aid aspect of the military that really intrigued her, and, while her decision to enter the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) at age 17 was met with surprise by her family, Matina says they were all very supportive. "I think we were all a bit naïve about the role I could end up serving in. Since Vietnam there hadn't been much active service but Aussies have been involved in. Also, as a female officer, I don't think we expected I would be in those positions or rules that would let me see active service," says Matina. However, after five overseas missions, two of which were in the middle east, she thinks her parents must have wondered why they encouraged her so wholeheartedly.
Rising through the ranks
While today opportunities for women in the armed forces are close to being on par with their male counterparts, it was very different in 2004 when Matina enrolled in the ADFA. Rather than deterring her, it motivated her to achieve more, cross-training with the Navy to be the first female in the army to complete the physically demanding Navy Divers course as well as the first army woman to fast-rope out of helicopters, previously something only special forces soldiers would do. "I achieved what I did as a result of the women before me who had broken through the glass ceiling so that women of my generation could have a career – we could do almost anything in the defence force we wanted to."
In a male-dominated environment leadership roles for women were particularly scarce. While some more senior officers saw her gender as a liability, Matina believes it's only made her a better leader. "I used to get frustrated that my male counterparts could waltz into a new posting and get that instant respect simply because of their rank, whereas I often felt I had to earn the respect of my team. In hindsight I think it's given me strength as an officer. Being a leader is a two-way street and I've learned that respect is something you earn, not a rank you wear," Matina says.
In her 15 year career, Matina was deployed on five overseas operational missions, Including two tours of active service in the Middle East and two operations in the Solomon Islands. She soon became familiar with the rigors of a war zone and her natural leadership skills granted her the opportunity to command the ship's army department aboard HMAS Kanimbla, Australia's largest amphibious ship, at only 24.
By 2005 Matina's commitment earned her a coveted 13 month deployment as a peacekeeper with the United Nations. She spent seven months in Syria and the rest in Lebanon, where she was primarily tasked with the responsibility I reporting breaches of the peace agreements and representing a much-needed symbol of calm for civilians. But that role suddenly expanded when, only weeks before her mission ended, war broke out between the Hezbollah and Israel. In addition to reporting breaches, the priority became getting out of the line of fire.
"Within minutes we went from monitoring a peace agreement to being in the thick of a full-scale war. The vulnerabilities of being an unarmed peacekeeper made it very dangerous." Daily near misses with bombings from fighter jets, attack helicopters and rockets became the norm.
If her loved ones were under the impression Matina had chosen a safer path as a UN peacekeeper, that illusion was soon shattered. In one agonizing phone call to her parents from within the bunker of her patrol base, her parents were fully exposed to Matina is reality. "I hadn't been able to contact them for quite a while as they'd been away on holidays. I was hoping in that call to reassure them everything was fine, but unfortunately during that conversation Israel commenced artillery attacks all around us, and my parents could hear the bombing happening outside the bunker door. It was such an emotional phone call and I knew my parents would be distraught not knowing what happened after we hung up and not even knowing the next time we'd be able to communicate."
It wasn't Matina's only close call with death. She can recall at least six occasions when she says she really should have died during that war. Her closest encounter came only on her second night into the war when an Israeli high-explosive artillery round impacted only 15 metres in front of her. "The only reason I didn't die was that it didn't fully detonate in front of me. If it had of operated the way it was designed to it would have shattered into thousands of pieces of hot metal shrapnel. Given that I was only 15 metres in front, it's more than likely it would have been a fatal hit," she says. Matina and her team were in the thick of almost constant fighting, but in rare moments of reprieve it was hard for her not to be affected by the human toll. "When you're in operational mode you're making decisions simply to survive, but the impact on the community and the civilian loss of life is devastating."
Hitting rock bottom
Matina can still recall in detail the accident that ended her military career at the young age of 30 in late 2006. Already a week overdue to be relieved by fresh personnel at the base, Matina was tasked to command a crew of 16 Indian and Ghanaian soldiers in a convoy of vehicles to the UN headquarters. Horrendous conditions meant the normally two-hour journey would take two days to complete. It was in the last portion of that transit Matina was injured in her cumbersome armored vehicle. "We'd been informed by headquarters that Israel was about to conduct the largest airstrike on record and we should expect to see bombs at any moment. We were making speed through chaotic city streets among panicked civilians also trying to seek shelter. I was on the radio and my driver was required to perform evasive maneuvering around an obstruction. With no seatbelts, I was thrown into the bulletproof windscreen of my vehicle."
Returning home proved to be a difficult transition for Matina. The physical pain of her injuries combined with horrific flashbacks and the effects of post-traumatic survivor guilt resulted in her hitting rock bottom. Matina delved into severe depression that she says robbed her of all positivity. "In a split second my life had been turned upside down. My career had ended without any say in the decision from me," she recalls. "I went from being supremely fit to being immobilized by pain and stuck in hospital for many months. I wore spinal brace for a year and who I saw myself as a person was largely wrapped up in my physical abilities. In hindsight I know I had so much to be thankful for, but at the time I can see that."
The physical and emotional aspects were crushing on their own, but what Matina didn't expect upon returning home was a battle with her own government. One of the criteria to qualify for 'war service' stated you had to be carrying a weapon, which meant that Matina, an unarmed peacekeeper, was ineligible to receive war-service recognition. Along with that, the health cover she required to treat the injuries weren't necessarily going to be covered when she was medically retired from the Army.
"Although I was clearly in a war zone, I didn't tick that bureaucratic box," says Matina. After more than two years, Matina won her long legal battle and received both the service recognition and the health coverage that she will require for the rest of her life. She now acts as an advocate for other Australian soldiers and feels honoured to have been selected as part of the Prime Minister's Advisory Council. "I needed to ensure that some positive lessons were learned from my experiences. We've had some significant changes to legislation to protect our wounded veterans in the future, but there's still a lot of work to be done with the Department of Veterans Affairs."
Instrumental throughout Matina's recovery was her husband Clent, a marketing executive, who she met at a mutual friend’s wedding only months before being deployed to the Middle East on her mission with the UN. The irony of meeting the right man at the wrong time wasn't lost on the couple, but love was on their side. Only a few months into her deployment Clent accepted a new position in Dubai and, with regular rendezvous in Lebanon, their fledgling romance was able to blossom. Clent was fortuitously in Lebanon when Matina had her accident and he assisted her evacuation on a boat with 1000 Lebanese refugees to Cyprus. "He really is the hero of my story," Matina says. "I have an amazing support network around me; they helped me get back on feet and turn my life around."
Critical to her emotional recovery was writing her book, Caught in the Crossfire, which was commissioned by publishers Allen and Unwin following the popular screening of her story on ABC's Australian Story in 2010. "I had 90 days to write an 110,000 word manuscript. It was a cathartic experience as I emotionally revisited those periods of my life in a different way, to reflect and relive them, and "Matina says. The book also uses QR technology in an Australian first, with readers able to view videos and be transported to the Lebanese war zone – as well as witnessing the agonizing moment Matina was thrown against the bulletproof windscreen of her vehicle. It was captured inadvertently by the video camera she's been using to record breaches of the peace.
Today, Matina has transferred the leadership and teamwork skills which saved her life on the battlefield to board room as an in-demand speaker. She says her fulfillment comes from seeing others benefit from her experiences. It also honors the service and sacrifice of her fallen teammates.
Her advice to women in business is to never underestimate the role we all play in our own organisation. "You never know if it could be your words of encouragement that could help turn some else's life around." For women in leadership positions she says, like on the battlefield, courage is one of the most important attributes to possess. "Particularly when dealing with change, leaders need to have vision, courage and the ability to invigorate their team to be part of the cultural change that is often required at the same time" she shares.
While she might be retired from the armed forces, Matina laughs that her skills as a negotiator are still regularly put into practice with her daughter, Sierra, two, affectionately nicknamed 'Cyclone Sierra.' Her second child is due in December. "I'm so blessed to be a mum, but it's amazing how sometimes one little person can make commanding 500 soldiers and dodging bombs in a war zone look like a walk in the park," she laughs. The growing family live in country Victoria and, like most working mums, Matina attempts the daily juggle between work and family life. She has simple lessons to share with her own children. "For women of this era, anything is possible as long as they put in the hard work. I'll always encourage my daughter to shoot for the stars."
It may be a little less action-packed than the previous chapters of her life, but it seems the Matina Jewell story is far from over.