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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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Matthew Lambert was an instinctive comic, forever organising pranks, dressing up for a laugh and if the dangers of his job came up, he'd only joke about them.

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

Emails sent to his childhood friend, Kaan Whittall, began with the usual banter.

War widow Vicki Hopkins with her son Alex.

War widow Vicki Hopkins with her son Alex. Photo: Kate Geraghty

''F--k it's hot here. Cause of the altitude there's no oxygen in the air. I run like a fat kid breathing through a straw.''

Since their primary school days in southern Brisbane, Whittall had loved his best mate's unwavering sense of fun. But then the email turned serious.

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

Corporal Mathew Hopkins on patrol with the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force 1 in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan.

Mid Caption: Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force 1 (MRTF1) of about 440 personnel is engaged in construction works in Oruzgan Province. MRTF1 also includes an Operational Mentor and Liaison Team, which assists the Afghan National Army with training and capability development. MRTF1 is comprised of engineers, mechanised infantry and cavalry from the Darwin-based 1st Brigade and is drawn mainly from the 7th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, 2nd Cavalry Regiment and 1st Combat Engineer Regiment.

Corporal Mathew Hopkins on patrol with the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force 1 in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan.

Lambert had spent much of his pre-deployment 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 email drafts in my hotmail account'' - 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 it's a bit weird, but I need to have something in place just in case.''

Two months later, Kaan 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.

Mathew Hopkins with his new born son Alex.

Mathew Hopkins with his new born son Alex.

Matthew 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?

Matthew Lambert with his mother, Vicki Pearce, at the beach before his deployment to Afghanistan.

Matthew Lambert with his mother, Vicki Pearce, at the beach before his deployment to Afghanistan. Photo: Bridget Cave Photography

There are the families welcoming loved ones home from Afghanistan, but less obvious is the relief the withdrawal will bring for Kaan 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 re-stirs the horror of their own loss; how calming it will be when they finally know the troops are home.

Families also spoke of the importance of last contacts - emails like the ones Kaan 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.''

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. A 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 video the Melbourne man recorded before deployment to Afghanistan. She says 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 says as tears swell. ''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 first child.

''The last time I actually saw Mathew was … with his one-day-old baby in his arms,'' Bronwyn Carter remembers. ''Every time I think of him, that's my last picture.''

Five weeks later, Taliban insurgents ambushed an Australian patrol in Oruzgan. Corporal Mathew 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 Grant 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.

Isabella, 12, read her dad'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 Grant Kirby's last email to the girl's mum, Edwina, he wrote about Isabella. ''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, pre-destined quality.

Matthew Lambert's mum, Vicki Pearce, fights back tears as she remembers ''trying to hold it together'' 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.''

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

Melbourne woman Jennifer Ward 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. He did tell me he wanted to marry Hayley [his girlfriend].''

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

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

''We just … '' She pauses. ''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.''

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 say, and he said 'I'm proud that you're my Mum.' … They were our last words.''

With that, Mathew 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 Matt said their final goodbye - in a ''big argument''.

''We argued a lot, like brothers do,'' he says. Cory and Matt's differences boiled over at exactly the wrong time. They fought about whether Matt should phone his dad - and parted angrily.

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

He says 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''.

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

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

Matt'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 too 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 also wrote: ''Don't be upset, I don't regret anything if I don't make it home … I had a good 26 years. Love you all, Matty.''

Vicki Pearce calls it her ''last little bit of contact … fabulous … though heart-wrenching''. She also knows Australia is closer this Christmas to the day where there will finally be no more ''last contacts'' from Afghanistan.