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The Fallen - Part Six

In the sixth part of our series, The Fallen tells the story of Matthew Lambert, killed in Afghanistan, through the words of his family and friends. Producer - Tom McKendrick

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"Hay buddy whats cracking.'' The email sent to Kaan Whittall 2½ years ago began with the usual banter, but it took a turn that made him uneasy.

From his primary school days in southern Brisbane, Whittall had loved his best mate's unwavering sense of fun. Matthew Lambert was an instinctive comic, forever organising pranks or dressing up for a laugh. If the dangers of his job came up in conversation, he would only joke about them.

A 26-year-old soldier, Matty, as his mates knew him, was seeing Afghanistan for the first time.

Memories: Fallen soldier Matthew Lambert on duty in Afghanistan.

Memories: Fallen soldier Matthew Lambert on duty in Afghanistan. Photo: Supplied

''F--- its hot here,'' the email went on. ''Cause of the altitude theres no oxygen in the air. I run like a fat kid breathing through a straw.''

But the note between mates turned serious as Lambert got to the point.

''I have a favour to ask,'' he wrote, ''in case I get whacked over here.''

Lambert's mother, Vicki Pearce, with his last letter from overseas.

Lambert's mother, Vicki Pearce, with his last letter from overseas. Photo: Supplied

It must have been an awkward line to write.

Lambert had just spent much of his predeployment leave in Brisbane calming loved ones, Whittall included, telling them time and again he'd be fine.

Now just days after arriving in Tarin Kowt, he was the one raising the issue of risk, quickly qualifying it as ''a really small chance'', but explaining how he was saving ''a couple of e-mail draphts in my hotmail account''. They were beyond-the-grave messages for his mum, dad, sister and girlfriend ''that I need sent to them … if it happens''.

He included his email account password and finished: ''Cheers, dude. I know its a bit weird, but I need to have something in place just in case.''

''Shut up, Matty.'' Whittall remembers turning to humour himself as he replied to his mate. ''If you keep talking like that I'm going to come over there and do it myself.''

Two months later Whittall, reeling from shock, logged in to the email account of the best friend he had lost the day before to an improvised explosive device.

Lambert's last notes made it home.

In coming days, Defence is likely to confirm the end of this year's major wind-down from Australia's longest war. Our troop numbers in Afghanistan have long been above 1500. In the new year, they will be about 400.

So who will feel Australia's collective sense of relief most acutely?

There are the families welcoming loved ones home from Afghanistan, but less obvious is the relief the withdrawal will bring for Whittall and hundreds of others for whom the wind-down comes too late, the loved ones of the 40 Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

One common reflection from those who have spoken on video for Fairfax Media's online series The Fallen has been how news of each subsequent combat death revives the horror of their own loss and how calming it will be when they finally know the troops are home.

Families also spoke of the importance of last contacts, such as emails like those Whittall passed on, letters or Skype calls from Afghanistan or perhaps a final hug before the last goodbye.

''He rang us about 10 days before he was killed,'' Ross Atkinson remembers of his son Richard.

''We had our last conversation with him. He was having a great time. He felt like he had a real purpose and felt he was doing a good job in Afghanistan.''

Kate Atkinson remembers a late-night Skype call from home in Launceston where she got a rare chance to speak to her son alone, after other soldiers had called it a night.

''It was just wonderful to see him without any of the other people around him, so he wasn't, I guess, feeling like he couldn't be just our lad, and that was a really special thing to have him there, just on the screen. It was good,'' she said.

That was January 2011. In early February, 22-year-old Corporal Richard Atkinson was leading his combat engineer section as a search commander in Oruzgan's Tangi Valley region. bomb exploded, killing him instantly.

On July 18, 2009, Jennifer Ward lost her son, Benjamin Ranaudo, to an explosion.

In the years since she has often viewed a one-minute video the young Melbourne man recorded just before his deployment to Afghanistan.

''I think it should be compulsory for every soldier to do a DVD for their mothers and fathers before they go,'' Ward said.

She plays it ''over and over just to hear his voice''.

''Most times it makes me happy [but] other times I just wish he was here for one more cuddle,'' she said as tears welled. ''One more 'Hey, mum, I'm home.'''

Bronwyn Carter's last contact with her son was a world apart from the murderous valleys of southern Afghanistan.

Mathew Hopkins, 21, had flown home in February 2009 for an emotion-charged week in Newcastle, to marry his beloved Victoria and be with her the following day as she gave birth to their child.

''The last time I actually saw Mathew was with his one-day-old baby in his arms,'' Carter recalled.

''Every time I think of him, that's my last picture.''

Just over five weeks later Taliban insurgents ambushed an Australian patrol in Oruzgan. Corporal Hopkins was shot dead.

''Dearest 'Bella, hello sweetheart,'' another father lost to Afghanistan, Grant Kirby, 35, wrote to the older of his two daughters in Brisbane as he waited in April 2010 to fly into the war zone.

''We are currently in a place called United Arab Emirates. See if you can find it on your atlas.''

Isabella was nine when the letter arrived.

That was four months before Private Kirby and colleague Private Tomas Dale, 21, stopped their Bushmaster vehicle in Afghanistan's Baluchi Valley. Moments later, a hidden IED erupted, killing both men instantly. As a 12-year-old, Isabella read her father's letter during an interview for The Fallen. ''I hope this letter finds you well and happy. I love you with all my heart and I'm missing you every day.''

And in Kirby's last email to the girl's mother, Edwina, he wrote about Isabella. ''She isn't a little girl any more. God I hate not being there and seeing her grow up. I can't wait to get back and see the little lady she's become.''

Looking back through grief, some of these last contacts take on an eerie, predestined quality.

Matthew Lambert's mum, Vicki Pearce, fights back tears as she remembers ''trying to hold it together - for him'' at Brisbane Airport, their final moment together.

''When I was hugging him, I didn't say anything at the time but I had a really strong sense that I wouldn't see him again.''

Lambert twigged to her fear ''and again he looked me in the eye and he said, 'I'll be fine.'''

Jennifer Ward, from Melbourne, has long wondered why her last call from son Benjamin went for two hours. ''I'll never know but I think something happened and I think he just needed someone to talk to,'' she said.

''He did tell me he wanted to marry Hayley [his girlfriend].''

She chuckled as she recalled teasing him. ''How do you know she'll marry you? She might say no. Might have a better offer.''

Bronwyn Carter, who lives on the Gold Coast, recalled how son Mathew Hopkins phoned her from Sydney Airport as he started the return journey to Afghanistan.

''We just …'' She paused. ''I don't know if it was like we knew. We said everything that needed to be said. It gives you a lot of peace.

''I said to him, 'Please be safe.' I said, 'I'm worried this time.'''

Rather than wave off her fear, he acknowledged it. ''Don't be worried, mum. If anything happens I'm fine with it. I can't wait to get back there.''

The young soldier left as a young father, too. ''If anything happens to me, please look after Alex [his newborn son].''

''And he told me how much he loved me, which he was never one to ay, and he said, 'I'm proud that you're my mum.' They were our last words.''

With that, Hopkins flew out of Australia for the last time.

If only the parting had been as calm and close for his younger brother.

Now a carpenter in Brisbane, Cory Hopkins has spent 4½ years grappling with the way he and Mat said their final goodbye, in a ''big argument''. ''We argued a lot, like brothers do.''

Their differences boiled over at exactly the wrong time. They fought about whether Mat should phone his father, and parted angrily.

''That was the last time we ever spoke to each other,'' Cory said.

''It was pretty depressing, you know, the last conversation you have with a family member before they die is an argument.''

He's been through ''a lot of bad thoughts'' about that last conversation, but ''your mindset changes'' and he feels ''not so bad now as I did after everything happened''.

His greater regret is a decision he took as he wrestled with the shock, just over a week after his brother's death.

''I was absolutely destroyed. I just found myself sitting on a couch staring into space,'' Cory said.

When offered the saddest last contact of all, a chance to view Mat's body, he chose not to.

He wishes he had. ''It still really bothers me every day.''

Cory Hopkins mentioned his lost brother in the present tense as he put that last fight into context. ''Mat loves me. I think he still … y'know, I love him no matter what.''

So what was in those ''just-in-case'' emails Matthew Lambert wrote in Afghanistan's stifling heat, the ones his mate Kaan Whittall would deliver just two months later?

Lambert's mother, Vicki Pearce shared hers with us.

''Mum and dad, I love you two very much, I am so grateful to have you guys as parents,'' he wrote.

''I just want you to know how much you meant to me.''

He wrote about the awkwardness. ''It's hard to know what to say in a letter like this,'' then, ever the comic, joked: ''You're on the downward slope now you're both over 45 [so] go on a holiday for me and enjoy it.''

He alluded to the zealotry driving the enemy in Afghanistan. ''I want the point made at the funeral that I was an anti-theist'' [not simply an atheist, but a believer in the destructive force of religion], but then he joked again: ''Trust me to use my funeral as a soapbox.

''Don't be upset, I don't regret anything if I don't make it home,'' he wrote, then: ''I'm happy accepting that this is it for me. I had a good 26 years. Love you all, Matty.''

Pearce calls it her ''last little bit of contact, fabulous though heart-wrenching''.