Allan Sparkes Reprise
Sat, September 7, 2013 at 13:37
Stephanie Hunt

This doesn't happen very often, but this week I crashed and burned on the profile I had planned to publish.  So I thought I would republish a personal favourite - the story of Allan Sparkes, a Coffs Harbour cop who is one of only 5 people to be awarded the Cross of Valour.

I first met Al in March 2012 and was captivated by his story of heroism in the line of duty and incredible courage in overcoming debilitating mental illness.  In fact his journey was so interesting that I submitted an idea to Good Weekend magazine and wound up re-interviewing Al, with his wife Deb, for the regular weekend column The Two of Us.  That column was read by a publisher at Penguin Books, who also recognised a great story.  She contacted Al and asked if he had ever thought of writing a book about his experience.

So, if you read this profile and feel you need to hear more of this story, then I commend to you Al's book: The Cost of Bravery.


All The Kings Horses And All The Kings Men

When Allan Sparkes stands to greet me on the terrace of Latitude 30 there is no sign that he was once a broken man.  His broad frame is commanding; his handshake is finger crushing; his smile is relaxed and welcoming.   As his story unfolds I am not surprised to learn that Allan was the recipient of Australia’s highest civilian award for bravery.  He looks like a hero.  What’s hard to believe is that this strong man’s life was once shattered.  “Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,” he tells me.  “Everything just broke.”

Like most of us Allan started out unworldly and unbroken.  It was an exuberant 19-year-old Allan who moved to Sydney from small town NSW to join the police force.  “The police represented excitement, change and challenges,” he recalls.  And he was good at policing, moving swiftly to detective level, working the tough streets of Darlinghurst and Kings Cross.  After a stint lecturing in police investigative procedures, Allan moved to the Special Breaking Squad responsible for apprehending Sydney’s major crime figures.  It would have been tough work, witnessing some horrible scenes.  Were cracks starting to form already?  Allan doesn’t say.

What he does say is that he was transferred to Coffs Harbour Police in 1989, when he was 30 years old, to investigate serious crime on the mid-north coast.  He tells me he preferred the cut and thrust of the dangerous criminal scene in Sydney, but he loved the Coffs Harbour community.  His girlfriend of 12 months and wife-to-be Deb moved up to join him soon after he arrived.  He joined the local rugby club, Deb joined the basketball club and they both felt wrapped in the embrace of “small town” community.

But Allan’s “big city” ways did not sit well with his police superiors.  “I wasn’t the favourite son of the bosses here,” Allan recalls.  The tension between Allan and the top cops bubbled over following a particularly horrific operation. 

Allan and others from Coffs Harbour were called in to support the Kempsey police following the fatal shooting of two police officers at Crescent Head in July 1995.  Charged with the late night evacuation of a third officer and his family, whilst the killer was still ‘out there somewhere’, Allan recalls his team had only one serviceable bullet resistant vest, no operational radio communication and hand-held torches instead of weapon mounted light systems.  He also recalls having to creep past the bloodstained, lifeless bodies of his comrades.  The operation ended with the suicidal death of the gunman the next morning.  But Allan’s emotions were raw; grief and shock at the loss of fellow offices, rage at what he considered an inexcusable lack of field resources.

Grief and rage are a potent combination, and the cracks were now starting to show.  “I started to bash heads with those in Command and my mental health was suffering,” says Allan.  When he asked Command for help in dealing with the trauma of the Crescent Head incident he was told he could be transferred to general duty policing, effectively a demotion.  He stopped asking for help.  His drinking and smoking increased and he began to weaken physically.

It’s difficult to say how stable Allan was in May 1996 when he and his partner rushed to Marcia Street, Coffs Harbour where a child had been swept into a storm drain.  The official citation for the Cross of Valour, which was awarded to Allan 2 years after he had rescued that child from the drain, read, “By his action, Mr Sparkes displayed the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril.”  But Allan remembers it as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Events kept replaying in Allan’s mind: the cries of a terrified child, nearly firing on another police officer during the Crescent Head incident, blood, screams.  He couldn’t sleep, except with the help of far too much alcohol; he found his work increasingly disturbing and filled with never ending pain. “I was ten feet tall and bullet proof wasn’t I?” Allan writes in his memoir.  “There is no way Allan Sparkes could be losing his mind.” By October 1996 he could deny it no longer.  He handed in his service revolver and handcuffs and asked to be taken home.  Humpty Dumpty had fallen.  All was in pieces.

All the King’s horses did not come riding to the rescue.  But slowly, painfully Allan put himself back together again.  There were psychiatrists, psychologists, anti-psychotics and anti-depressants.  There were set backs, like when the police force gave him a medical discharge that he didn’t want.  But there were pluses too, like the unbending support of Deb and his love for their 2-year old daughter Nikki.  Exercise helped.  The recognition that had come with the awarding of the Cross of Valour in 1998 saw some sense of pride return.

For the next decade, some semblance of normalcy returned to Allan’s life.  He established a private investigative business in Coffs Harbour; his second daughter Alayna was born; he kept up the exercise and dropped off the drugs.  There were brushes with fame, like when he was featured on 60 minutes.  When his friend Alan McCabe became parapeligic after a rugby accident, Allan threw himself into 5-year project raising funds to build a new home for Allan and his wife.   Life was full again.

But Allan says it was sailing a yacht named ‘Sunboy’ from England to Australia with his family that finally healed him.  “It was something I had wanted to do ever since I was a kid,” says Allan.  He persuaded Deb to buy a yacht and pull Nikki and Alayna, then 14 and 9, out of school and the whole family set sail. 

Deb was prepared to put her faith and trust in me to set sail across the ocean, knowing full well where I had been,” Allan says.  “That gave me a huge amount of confidence and a feeling of self worth.”  Faith and salt water heal all wounds.  “I think it was half way across the Pacific that I really felt as though I had completely rebuilt myself.”

Allan is now determined to share his story and has taken to the speaker circuit.  There aren’t enough positive stories out there he tells me.  People stricken with PTSD or depression need to know that there is a way out, it doesn’t have to be forever.  Allan’s story shows us that you don’t need all the King’s horses and all the King’s men to put Humpty Dumpty back together.  You just need perseverance, love and support

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (
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