Country lad stepped up to save the world

December 06, 2015

FROM the simple, innocent country life in rural Victoria where he still remembers his milk being delivered by horse and cart every day, to being held at gunpoint by a troubled teenager in Afghanistan . . .

Flick through the pages of Ian Mansfield’s Stepping Into A Minefield autobiography and readers uncover a brave man with a mission to help others. The Mooloolaba resident and Member of the Order of Australia dedicated much of his life to showing civilians in war-torn countries how to safely remove active landmines.

He put 20 years’ service into the Australian Army, serving as a combat engineer before taking on the seemingly insuperable task of clearing out landmines in places such as Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia and Mozambique.

After growing up in country Victoria with four brothers and one sister, he was drawn to the active and challenging lifestyle the Army had to offer. He received a scholarship to Duntroon Royal Military College which ultimately led to serving as a combat engineer in the Army.

“My life could probably be put into three 20-year blocks – 20 years growing up in Ararat in country Victoria, 20 years in the Australian Army and 20 years working for the United Nations,” Mr Mansfield said.

He has willingly gone to destinations around the globe that many people wouldn’t dare to step foot in. He served in the Army during the ’70s and ’80s – times characterised by strong anti-war sentiments re-enforced by the Whitlam Government.

As the Government was reluctant to deploy any Army operations during the Cold War, Mr Mansfield was mainly stationed in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

However, he kept busy leading and training soldiers in efforts around the country.

“I was 21 and commanding 40 or 50 soldiers,” he recalled. “It was a lot of responsibility given to a young officer.”

He said that through his years in the Army, he learnt a great many life lessons which then ignited his passion for lending his hand to the forlorn.

“Joining the Army opened my eyes to the broader world as I’d never been outside the country until I joined the Army,” he said.

“YOU always met different people from different backgrounds.”

It wasn’t until the UN asked for Australia’s assistance in a landmine-removal operation that Mr Mansfield took on what would be his last job as a part of the Army.

He and his team of combat engineers flew over to Afghanistan to teach the locals how to remove landmines.

During the Cold War, the Soviets occupied Afghanistan for more than 10 years before leaving in 1989, which resulted in disbanded minefields being dispersed throughout the country.

“The land mines stay in the ground and kill people years and years after wars are over and that’s not right,” Mr Mansfield said.

Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, the United Nations asked him to take over running the entire program.

“I went in with my Army hat on and shortly after, left and joined the United Nations,” Mr Mansfield said.

“I was really enjoying it. It was quite satisfying and rewarding work. “Villages had been completely destroyed. “You cleared the mines and people would move back in and rebuild the houses or plough the fields or start driving on the roads again.”

Despite all the moving around he did, his family – wife Margaret and children Zoe and Charles – stuck by his side through it all. They even moved with him to Pakistan during the times he was working in Afghanistan.

“Because we were in the military, we were quite used to moving so it wasn’t unusual and we made it positive: you know, ‘Hey, we’re going to Afghanistan – this will be interesting’,” Mr Mansfield said.

“The advantage was, I had my wife and kids with me so I always had somewhere to go home to and someone to talk to, to get things off my chest.

“When you’re young and join the Army, you’re looking for adventure and excitement. “As you get a bit older and you have your own kids, your perspective changes.” Mr Mansfield said that after hearing of a young boy being killed by setting off a cluster bomb in Laos, and with his own child around the same age, it really became clear to him how harsh war really was.

“The boy was 10 and I had a kid around same age at the same time and I thought, well, this is wrong, the war has been over for 40 years and here’s a child being killed,” he said.

“It’s things like that which stick in your mind and you think, ‘This is not right. People shouldn’t be killed years and years after war is finished’.”

He said both Zoe and Charles enjoyed going to school in a different country.

“So when I first went to Afghanistan, my wife came with me, and Zoe and Charles when they were 12 and 10,” he said.

“They’d get on a plane in Canberra, fly up to Bangkok, then head up to Laos and come to Bosnia and New York.

“They got a great holiday out of it. “They learnt to respect other cultures and other people.”

Now semi-retired at 63, Mr Mansfield spends his time with his wife in Alexandra Headland and doing consulting work with the UN.

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