ON HOME GROUND Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, DSM, Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces pictured back home in Castlebar. The Navy officer is pictured on The Mall at the statue of Manannán Mac Lir, the legendary sea-god of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Castlebar native Mark Mellett on life as the Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces
In September, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett, DSM, will retire as Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces after six very demanding years in the role.
He’s the first ever Navy officer to hold the post and The Mayo News caught up with him recently when he was back in Castlebar to visit an old army comrade, Captain Noel Carey.
Mellett is engaging company, earnest, diligent, open minded and clearly constantly evolving and learning.
He’s considered radical in his role of Chief of Staff, breaking down many of the barriers that existed in the past.
He champions inclusion and diversity in the Defence Forces and is a believer of an environment where anything that needs to be called out can be.
He could hold court all day talking passionately about the challenges to the world order and his fears about climate breakdown.
He prefers to talk about wider issues than himself but he has some story to tell in his own right.
From his early training days in the Navy being shadowed at sea by the Soviets during the height of the Cold War to his heroics in the then largest drugs seizure in the history of the state to the dangers of serving in Afghanistan, Mellett has led a fascinating career in the military.
But before all that were his formative years in Castlebar. He is proud of his native town, just as his native town is proud of him. Nature and nurture clearly dovetailed nicely for him.
Brought up in Rathbaun, Mark Mellett came from good ‘townie’ background – his father Paddy from The Mall and mother Monica from McHale Road.
But he loved the countryside and whiled away many days at Paddy Deacy’s farm half a mile from his home.
There, in the woods, though he might not have reckoned it at the time, but a nine-year-old Mellett was showing an aptitude and a sense of adventure that would serve him well.
“We built a great hut there. It was more than just a hut. It was a sophisticated two-story construction and had a car battery that we robbed from our garage. We had lighting and everything. We had an alarm system and when you came inside and you stepped on the floorboard, the alarm system was switched on and a car horn used to blow.
“It was just such a great time, a great sense of freedom. There was a small river then out there beyond Rathbaun. We had a raft and we probably thought we were Huckleberry Finn! It was just such a wonderful time, such a great freedom,” he recalls, fondly.
From there he got involved in the local Ramblers Club, a forebear of the Castlebar Four Day Walks and, incredibly, was chairman by the age of 13. He credits men like Bob Kilkelly, Andy Feeney and Ernie Sweeney as ‘great mentors’.
Reading through the minutes of the club recently, he was struck by the level of planning and organisation they undertook from climbing Mweelrea to organising a clean-up around The Mall.
“It just was so empowering. Yet, when I look back, I was only a kid, and yet I didn’t feel like I was a kid,” he reflects.
The FCA was the next port of call. You had to be aged 18 to join but Mellett was 18 when he left, after three years. They obviously saw something in him to fast track him as a 15-year-old. Men like Billy Moran and Mick Considine had a hugely positive impact on his development and Considine may well be the man who moved Mellett towards a career in the Navy.
Considine organised a sailing course in Rosmoney, outside Westport, while his father Paddy had a boat in Killary Harbour. Those short voyages stirred something in the teenager.
So when Mick Considine encouraged him to apply for the cadets, he tried for the Navy and was successful. He headed off to Cork aged 18, where he still lives today.
Stresses and strains
Fast forward to the present and Mark Mellett is now responsible for over 8,000 men and women in the Irish Defence Forces. It is an onerous responsibility and let no one tell you Irish soldiers do not face real dangers in the course of their work.
Mellett experienced those risks himself in the Middle East and Afghanistan and plenty more risks closer to home too.
Now, he often awaits anxiously for news of Irish troops on dangerous foreign missions.
“I do worry about some of our most challenging missions, where we have nearly 600 personnel in 13 missions in 12 countries as I speak to you now. I worry about different dangerous missions where we have the Army Ranger wing in northern Mali, you’re dealing with very, very challenging conflicts.
“I experienced it myself in Afghanistan in 2004 in Kabul where rockets were flying into the camp where you are, being fired by the Taliban,” he said, adding it is a source of great sadness to him that the peace in Afghanistan ‘remains so fragile’.
But what he admits keeps him awake more than anything else is the reality of suicide.
“The one thing that I feel helpless about is when I get a phone call related to a suicide. I have got those phone calls. I’m not saying that, we have a higher level of suicide in the Defence Forces. We don’t, but every suicide is such a waste for the individual, but also for those left behind. What I try to do is normalize talking about suicide when you don’t have a suicide, because the interventions and the actual mitigation is best done between people.
“When you’re moving around and you’re engaging with someone today, always be sensitive to what’s going on in that person’s head. Be ready to listen to them. Be ready to engage with them. Be prepared that people are carrying a lot of challenges around. You shouldn’t be blind to it, certainty in a leadership role.”
Having witnessed conflicts the world over, he knows the peace we enjoy in Ireland is not one we ought to take for granted. He wrote passionately about our freedom in the foreword for this newspaper’s War of Independence supplement earlier this month. And he is very concerned about the direction the world is headed, citing conflicts not too far from here in the Ukraine and Syria, expressing fears about the growth of nationalism and extremism.
“That’s all pointing towards that deterioration in terms of peace and security, which is a hallmark of the world order in itself.
“We’re in the top 7 percent of most peaceful countries in the world in Ireland, and I do think sometimes, we take it for granted. The world is in a fragile state.”
He speaks passionately about ‘breaking down the barrier walls’ so the Defence Forces are not fortified behind their barracks, but have a more fluid relationship with Irish society. He speaks at length about what he refers to as the ‘treble helix’ – collaboration between defence forces, academia and enterprise to ensure diversity and a common understanding.
Reflecting on his own time at the helm of the Irish Defence Forces, Mark Mellett describes being the first naval officer in the role as a ‘source of humility’. He says he would prefer his legacy to be on fundamental changes on a strategic level than one which began and ended at a man who made history. Many in the know tell you he has already achieved this.
He’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife Liz, their four children and his first grandchild, due any day now.
He won’t put the feet up either. It wouldn’t be in his nature. He is exploring options in academia, the speaking circuit and possibly doing some work with NGOs.
He will be 63 in November, the mandatory retirement age for a Chief of Staff. He will stay active – after all here is a man who runs four miles every morning and hikes whenever he can with Liz.
After all, he was rambling before he ever donned his military garb so why wouldn’t he do it afterwards too?
Mark Mellett’s Distinguished Service Medal was earned for his leadership of a dramatic drugs raid off the Clare coast
Mark Mellett had a decision to make. As captain of the LE Órla, there was strong intelligence on a potentially significant drugs shipment coming into Irish waters.
The safe play was to approach the boat in daylight, announce their arrival, get the smugglers to put down any weapons they might have and Mellett’s crew would board the boat and investigate.
The trouble with the safe play was it gave the smugglers time. Time to get rid of any intelligence on the boat, to perhaps consign the illegal cargo to a watery grave. Time to limit the scale of the success of the raiding military. Perhaps even time to get out to the relative safety of international waters.
The riskier play was to use the element of surprise and try to apprehend them under the cover of darkness. Giving them less time to react and remove incriminating evidence.
The risk was greater because it could easily lead to a shoot-out and Mark Mellett would have to explain why he chose the riskier play. Lives could depend on his decision.
As he says himself, he’s not reckless but certainly is not risk adverse either.
He demurred the safe play; they would raid the boat at night.
Gardaí intelligence had gathered information of a possible big shipment somewhere off the west coast of Ireland. Mellett stealthily anchored the LE Órla not far from Fastnet Rock, off the west Cork coast, hoping to be in a position to go east or north from there.
Information came through at midnight of a suspect vessel off Loop Head off the Clare coast.
The race was on and the first target was to get into position when the cover of darkness was still cloaking the Atlantic.
“I had nearly 120 miles to cover from where I was. I still remember to this day, dawn was going to be on that particular day, on July 13 in 1993, was going to be probably 5.10am. I calculated I had to get to that point at least 20 minutes or half an hour before that so that I could find it and send my boarding team in.
“I remember going at about 25 knots, that’s 50 kilometres an hour, and you’re moving in a ship nearly 1,000 tonnes, and you’re moving through the Blaskets and the small salmon fishermen out there and everything. You’re accepting responsibility for their safety, and at the same time, you don’t want them to see you because if they see you, they’ll start talking on the radio, and if they talk on the radio everybody will know. We made a journey and we completed it. We were off that area where the vessel was operating at 4.40am.”
The drama was only starting. The challenge was multi-fold. They had to ensure the target vessel stayed inside the 12 mile limit or else they would be free in international waters.
He had no lights on the LE Órla but, conscious that his ship would be picked up on the radar of the smugglers’ ship, he had to use some more stealth.
He put on fishing lights so they would look like a trawler from a distance in the darkness and were far enough away that the target vessel couldn’t see the profile of a warship.
Mellett launched his boarding team and, crucially, among their number was an engineer.
The vessel tried to ram the boarding party but they adroitly evaded and got onto the vessel.
In the meantime, the smugglers had opened up a sea chest valve and the ship was sinking – and taking all of its drugs and intelligence with it.
The engineer paid his way by sealing the boat within minutes and saved it from sinking.
That level of planning helped ensure Mellett’s approach had been completely and utterly vindicated, it was a hugely successful seizure, the largest drugs seizure in the history of the state to that point.
“We seized two tons of cannabis, and really vital intelligence with regards to an international drug-smuggling team that were based in Belgium, in Netherlands, in the UK, and Ireland. This team had evaded interception for years,” explains Mellett.
It all came down to taking a risk and having the presence of mind to execute the plan in the most pressurised of environments.
Had it went wrong, Mellett would have known all about it. ‘The joys of command’ he reflects now.
His management of that dramatic seizure earned Mark Mellett a DSM (Distinguished Service Medal) and marked him out as a man going places in the Irish Defence Forces. Right to the top, as it happened.
Mark Mellett on...
Diversity and inclusion
“Be unique. The world doesn’t need automatons. It needs diversity. It needs different perspectives, different interpretation. It needs uniqueness. Everybody is born differently.”
“We’re not great at encouragement of youngsters. If somebody is doing very well, we can, and have in the past, been the first to knock … You go to other societies, and they really value success.
“I think this is changing now. What we need to do is rejoice in success, wherever it is, and not to have this cynical minimalism and begrudgery.”
“Opportunities come to pass. What I mean by that is a window opens, if you’re brave, you can make a decision and you can go for it. If you’re conservative and you’re risk-averse, you won’t take a decision and the opportunity will be gone. You then will spend your next year or two bemoaning the missed opportunity.”
“I have made mistakes on all fronts, but what I try and do is do the learning from those mistakes, roll that learning back so that the next time you’re presented with a similar circumstance, there’s a less likelihood that you will make the same mistake. That’s what life is about.”
“My way to destress is do physical exercise. As well as this I do what Eckhart Tolle calls mindfulness. I call it mind emptiness where I just try and have those periods whereby you stop worrying about what’s happened yesterday, and what might happen tomorrow, and you just try and be present. You just enjoy the beauty and the gifts that surround you.”