RAAF Afghanistan veteran Brad Kay paints picture of challenges after service

By Maxine Brown


THEY say that the work of the artist is to heal the soul and for Afghanistan veteran Brad Kay, that soul is his own.

The father of three served 22 years with the Royal Australian Air Force, including a four-month stint as a rad tech (electronics technician) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2009, where enemy rocket attacks on his position occurred two or three times a week.

Brad Kay artist
Veteran Brad Kay delivers some of his beautiful wildlife paintings to Poppy Lane Coffee & Flowers, at ANZAC House Veteran Central, where they are available to buy.

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Brad was supervisor for the radar maintenance team on the night shift. That radar, plus other key sensors, supplied air traffic controllers with a clear picture of all air traffic at any given time.

As someone who had never previously deployed on operations, Brad found himself – as dad to a newborn and an 18-month-old – unexpectedly thrust into the War on Terror.

He basically stepped straight off the plane into a ramp ceremony, a memorial service to send home the bodies of two American soldiers who’d been killed when a shaped charge took out their Humvee during patrol just inside Kandahar.

Brad says: “I didn’t want to panic the wife at home, so when I rang I wouldn’t tell her about stuff like that. The whole base would show up for a ramp ceremony and for a while there, they were basically daily.

“Six weeks in is when the first rocket attacks started. It was a standard thing to wear your body armour between 5pm and 10pm, because that was the likely time for a rocket attack. They had a rocket attack warning system that would go off three minutes after an attack (laughs ironically).

“Two to three times a week we were being shot at. There was the base and we were housed in the middle of that and those that were firing at us. So they’d fire over or through us to get to the base.

“Shit really got real when we lost a couple of guys in Karin Towt, so you’d think about those guys a lot.”

Brad got about his business and used his paints, pencils and creative streak to while away the hours, even creating a children’s book about his deployment for his son. After the four-month rotation, Brad returned home and soon left the military, but actually found it harder to settle into civilian life than he did into war life.

He explains: “Since I’ve been home I’ve suffered panic attacks. I’m very hyper-vigilant and I don’t like having my back to a crowd. So if we go into a restaurant or something, I will try to sit so that I can view everything and if I see something suspicious, my anxiety goes up in levels.”

But it’s those Kandahar rocket attacks that appear to have left an impact on Brad’s psyche and life.

“I was like a lot of veterans who got out and said, ‘I’m fine, nothing’s wrong with me’. It took me about eight years to accept the effects on my mental health. There’s triggers – and new triggers pop up.

“When I got back from Afghanistan the wife didn’t quite realise. But she’s realising now. When I first got back we were hopping into a car and near a building site. The lunchtime siren went off and Sharon’s standing next to the car waiting for me to unlock it … and l’m on the other side, flat out on the bitumen waiting for the rockets to come in.

“I got myself up and dusted myself off and was like, ‘yeah, let’s go’!“

If only the mental trauma was easy to brush off. Over 10 years, Brad has worked for five different companies in 10 different roles – from truck driver, through to rigger and underground communications. But after about a year, no matter how much he enjoyed the work, Brad would be burnt out.

But there was one thing that remained as constant as his wife’s support – and that was Brad’s love of art; in the form of painting, drawing, creating and now, photography too.

He’ll spend hours pouring his energy and paints into a canvas in an effort to reproduce moments that bring peace and joy, often of native flora and fauna, which Brad captures on his camera when he ventures out.

“I’ve always done a bit of art,” he says, “because I’m more a visual person than a reading person. While on deployment, while people were reading, I’d be finding stuff to do, making stuff. I made a little illustrated book for my son, about the types of planes landing at base, dad’s accommodation and stuff. I also made a hammock out of hoochie string.”

The art gives an outlet for Brad’s emotions, allowing him to focus and help to quiet the busy thoughts. He’s even had some of his many works exhibited – and now has some pieces available to buy at Poppy Lane Coffee & Flowers at ANZAC House Veteran Central.

As for the future, Brad’s focus is now firmly on his family and wellbeing.

As for ANZAC Day, it’s taken on a much more sombre meaning to Brad since his Afghanistan deployment.

This year, Brad will attend attend the Joondalup City RSL’s Dawn Service in Ocean Reef, before getting on the phone later to check in on his service buddies and their welfare.

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