War trauma and the art of healing

gordon traill


When Coming Home art exhibition organiser Gordon Traill returned to Australia from Iraq, he was unaware that he was yet to suffer the real toll of six months spent in an urban warzone.

“When I came back I thought everything’s fine, of course,” Mr Traill said.

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Mr Traill comes from a family with strong military ties. He joined the army at age 19 and spent most of the next 30 years in uniform.

In 2004, he was sent to Iraq where the US-led coalition administered a violence-wracked country after overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Mr Traill was part of Australia’s security detachment to protect embassy staff and contractors in the so-called Red Zone of Baghdad.

The Red Zone was anywhere outside of the city’s theoretically safe Green Zone. Mr Traill said during his deployment, bombs would go off daily as well as frequent small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

“If the building wasn’t rocking you were OK,” he said.

One explosion threw Mr Traill down a flight of stairs and left him with a headache for days.

As a father, he was greatly impacted by seeing the carnage inflicted by a car bomb just outside the building he was working in; small children were among the casualties.

However, as a long-time and well-trained soldier with “an A-type personality”, Mr Traill thought he took it all in his stride.

“Things in that environment, with the training and everything like that, you go there and everything’s normal,” he said.

“It’s not until you come back and show people some of the stuff, images or footage of what occurred over there, that you think ‘It’s not really normal at all’.”

Once home, Mr Traill found that he was increasingly moody and tetchy with his kids.

He attended a course run by military chaplains and realised he could tick all the boxes for the tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Twice he broke down in tears, once before he was scheduled to talk to a Defence welfare group, forcing him to pull out, and another time talking to a mate.

“It’s that feeling that overcomes you and you just don’t know where it came from. It comes from deep within your soul,” Mr Traill said.

His wife grew increasingly concerned.

“I started to have these real bad panic attacks. There are things I can’t remember that I did,” Mr Traill said.

One such incident, that his wife told him of, was ‘freaking out’ in a Darwin supermarket and rushing out, unable to handle the feeling of being in a crowd.

Mr Traill was in line for another tour of Iraq but a chronic neck injury and his mental turmoil convinced him he wasn’t fit to serve, a difficult thing for a professional soldier to admit.

“It’s pretty hard to do, in front of a commanding officer and regimental sergeant major, to say ‘Hey there’s something NQR – not quite right’,” he said.

Mr Traill was medically discharged from the army, which “felt like a divorce”.

Adjusting to life outside the army has proved a long struggle.

“You wonder ‘why wasn’t I killed?’ You start to think ‘what is my purpose?’” Mr Traill said.

“Seven years I was lost and then I became a Christian and I found that really helped me. It gave me some peace.”

There was also another timely intervention from his wife, who told him to get out of the house and find a hobby.

Mr Traill thought back to taking photos in Iraq and decided that fit the bill.

“Once I started to do photography it got me out of bed,” he said.

“It got me to focus because your head is like swiss cheese.”

Mr Traill began winning awards and was invited to be lead photographer on Victoria Cross Australia Remembers, a fundraising coffee table book put out by a veterans’ support group.

He also became involved in the Creative Ministries Network and volunteered at bereavement support service GriefWork Uniting.

Early on Mr Traill realised his photography could intersect with grief counselling and that has led to the Coming Home exhibition.

The exhibition will feature 25 artworks by veterans, their families and artists who portray the trauma of war.

The opening event will be at Armadale Uniting Church on 17 November and the works will be on general public display at the south-east Melbourne church from 17 to 25 November.

Mr Traill’s photography will be featured along with poetry by his wife.

The exhibition’s aim is to raise understanding of the mental struggles faced by veterans and demonstrate the cathartic and healing properties of artistic endeavour and expression.

Mr Traill said he wanted to show veterans that: “You can live a semi-normal life through the arts.”

He can personally attest to this.

“I have a new identity. I am not a soldier anymore. I am an artist.”

The exhibition is supported by CTM through a grant from the Kirk Robson Theology and Arts Memorial Fund. Mr Traill also wanted to note the support of Armadale minister Fiona Winn and council member Karel Reus.

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