Charlotte Roseby continues our ‘Plumber at War’ series, talking with Lyndon McDonald, who served as a plumber in the Army and was deployed to Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.
It’s said that an army runs on its stomach, but we know better: armies run on clean water. They need it for drinking water, food preparation; for showering, washing transport and equipment and – it seems so obvious once you think about it – an army needs plumbers to keep it all running.
Plumbers serve in the Australian Army in Royal Australian Engineer Corps Construction Squadrons, performing advanced drainage, sanitary, water supply, roof plumbing, intermediate gas and mechanical work, as well as tasks associated with construction, repair and maintenance. They work alongside carpenters, electricians, plant operators and combat engineers. The Army has its own plumbing apprenticeship program, as well as recruiting qualified or partially qualified civilians.
We hazard a guess that Army plumbers are our fittest plumbers; they all start out by completing the “deliberately challenging” basic training common to all soldiers. The timetable lists subjects like weapon handling, marksmanship, swim test, stretcher carry, high wires, drill and field exercises, as well as (like every army movie you’ve ever seen) barracks inspections and haircuts.
Lyndon McDonald, a young man from Cootamundra, was working in a plumbing supply shop in Canberra when he decided he was ready for a change. The Defence Force hadn’t been a long-held dream, but the chance to “do something different” was. He leapt at the chance when he was offered a plumbing apprenticeship with the Army.
21 Construction Squadron
After his basic training in Wagga Wagga (NSW), Lyndon then proceeded to his specialised employment training: a plumbing course at Bonegilla (VIC) run by RMIT, combat engineer training at the School of Military Engineering, and civilian on-the-job training with various plumbing contractors throughout Sydney. He qualified and was posted to 21 Construction Squadron.
Lyndon’s first deployment was in Australia, in the remote Northern Territory, as part of AACAP: the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme, which delivers infrastructure projects to improve health and living standards in Aboriginal communities. It was a great experience, said Lyndon, in an amazing place. His squadron built four houses – and improved the potable water supply along the way.
From there, it was a short hop to his next posting in Townsville as part of the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment... and then came the big news for Lyndon. Next stop: Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, take one
What were his first thoughts? “I thought it was a great opportunity,” says Lyndon. “Getting deployed overseas is what everyone wants to do – no-one turns it down. It’s what you’re trained to do – and what you’re working towards.”
Lyndon was deployed to Uruzgan, one of Afghanistan’s poorest, most isolated and least-developed provinces, whose people lived under the repressive rule of the Taliban.
In Uruzgan, health and education were low priorities, women and girls were not allowed to go to school and, according to aid agency Save the Children, the province had some of the worst maternal and child health outcomes in the world.
Lyndon arrived at the main Australian base in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan, in September 2007 as part of the Reconstruction Task Force: a combined Dutch and Australian force working together with the local populations to help restore essential infrastructure, provide security and in the long term, restore governance to the region.
“My first impression was like taking a step back in time,” says Lyndon. “The landscape... the huge mountains of bare rock... the heat and dust. It looked barren to me. We got there and it was nearly 50 degrees.”
Lyndon soon got used to the tough conditions. His role was to help build patrol bases (outpost compounds) for the use of Australians and their Afghan colleagues.
On the main base the construction teams were able to supply water to the troops from bores, wells and storage tanks. On the patrol bases, it was more primitive, says Lyndon. “You dig a hole for the toilet. Drinking water was out of bottles... But the local people don’t even have that. Plumbing is non-existent; all their water has to be carried from wells or the river.”
“We would deploy ahead of the main body to get everything ready for the troops,” says Lyndon. They fitted out shipping containers to create toilet, shower and amenity blocks, which were then transported on the back of a truck to (even more) remote locations.
“They were very challenging conditions, so preparation was the key... Once you’re out there, there would be no running to the shops to get something.” Some innovative plumbing solutions were required, says Lyndon. ”The plumbing rules and regulations in Afganistan are vastly different to Australia, so it was a real challenge to apply best practice to areas where they actually don’t exist!”
Did he feel safe? Lyndon is circumspect. “We had a task to do, and we needed to do it as fast as possible. The less time on the ground, the better... We got shot at by rocket-propelled grenades, but the roadside bombs were the real danger.
It felt much safer flying anywhere instead of travelling by road. Safety was something you would keep at the back of your mind.”
While he was in Afghanistan Lyndon was promoted to Lance Corporal. He returned home after seven and a half months in Tarin Kowt.
Afghanistan, take two
The following year, in 2009, he was deployed to Afganistan again with the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force. It was, he says, a nice surprise to be able to return. “I knew what to expect the second time around... I knew what I’d be getting for breakfast!”
This time, Lyndon became the main instructor at the Trade Training School, alongside carpentry and building instructors, giving local Afghan teenage boys practical skills to bene t their community. Lyndon instructed the boys in four weeks of practical, basic plumbing: water reticulation and fittings, waste reticulation and storage, and drainage.
At the end of the course, each boy received a toolkit supplied by AusAID and the Trade Training School would invite local contractors to see the boys’ work and see what employment they could o er. About two-thirds of their teenage graduates found work in the Tarin Kowt construction industry, while others travelled to other provinces to work.
“It was really valuable, being able to pass on what I’ve learned as a plumber to young Afghans – providing them employment opportunities within their community and to the long-term future of their country,” says Lyndon. “It was giving them an opportunity, but also keeping them out of trouble. It was hard for them... some boys had lost their entire families.”
What was satisfying, says Lyndon, was that some of the first batch of students returned to become the instructors at the school, proof of the knock-on bene ts of the program.
“The learning went two ways.
We learned about each other’s lives.”
Plumbers serve in the Royal Australian Engineer Corps, in both Construction Squadrons and Combat Engineer Regiments.
Save the Children are on frontlines around the world, delivering aid and development programs. You can support them by donating at: savethechildren.org.au/donate
Home, sweet home
Lyndon served another eight months in Afghanistan. He’s back home now, working for Ipswich City Council in Queensland as a civilian Plumbing Inspector. It’s a world away from Uruzgan, but Lyndon is enjoying the variety, getting out and about doing site inspections and planning approvals. He left the Australian Regular Army but recently returned to the Army Reserve as a plumber, serving with the newly formed 104 Construction Squadron at Ipswich.
The Army really was training for life, Lyndon says: “The skills and training I received have enabled me to excel as a plumbing inspector. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I would recommend anyone interested in becoming a plumber to consider joining the Army.”
“It was good to be home; I really missed my three kids. But it makes you really appreciate what we have here. In Uruzgan they live in fear, daily. We are so lucky to have the freedom to do what we like... and turn on the tap and get clean water.”
In 2013 the last Australian troops left Uruzgan Province. A Save the Children program remained to improve the quality and use of basic health and education services. The program built 70 schools, trained 800 teachers and more than 300 health workers and nursed 7,000 malnourished children back to health.