'It’s such a big part of me now'

25 September 2020 by Claire Hunter

Christine Hall

When Christine Hall’s husband Stephen returned from Afghanistan in 2012, she felt compelled to capture the moment forever.

She had an image of a woman embracing an Australia soldier tattooed on her back as a permanent reminder of her husband’s homecoming.

“Steve had just got back from Afghanistan, and I just wanted to commemorate that time,” she said.

“It was such a wake-up call for me about all the service people, past and present, and what a sacrifice they make, and what they feel, and I just had to capture that somehow and mark it in time with the tattoo.

“It’s such a big part of me now – I must have this tattoo – and if someone asks me about it I can explain and tell them our story.”

Their story is set to be told at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra as part of Ink in the Lines, a new temporary exhibition sharing stories of Australia’s military veterans and their families, through their tattoos.

The exhibition is the first of its kind at the Memorial, and features personal stories of those who have served with the Army, Air Force and Navy in conflicts and peacekeeping operations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Rwanda and Somalia.

Christine's tattoo

Christine never dreamt her tattoo would one day feature in an exhibition at the Memorial in Canberra.

“When I got the tattoo, I never thought that it would go this far,” she said. “Hopefully it reaches people and they have a greater appreciation of service people … and the huge sacrifices that they make.”

Christine met Stephen in Melbourne before he joined the army.

“I was 18 and he would have been 20,” she said. “I was just finishing high school and we were at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They had terrible music on, and he was walking around with some Nirvana CDs so we tracked him down, and then we exchanged MSN chat details, and it just went from there … We’ve been together ever since.”

Stephen proposed at Alexander Gardens in the city, and the pair married in a small ceremony in the Dandenong Ranges in 2007. Stephen joined the army a few years later at the age of 28.

“We were young and we had bought a unit together,” Christine said. “He was working factory jobs, and he wasn’t very happy … He’d thought about the army as a teenager, and we were at a turning point, so he started the process and got in straight away, and the rest is history.  It was the best thing he ever did; he was quite shy and reserved, and the army really brought him out of his shell.”

Stephen deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as part of Operation Slipper and then Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates in 2015.

“We moved to Brisbane in December of 2011 and he was gone by May of 2012,” Christine said.

“We got posted to Brisbane when I was 33 weeks pregnant with our first child and then he was on pre-deployment training to go to Afghanistan when our daughter was three and a half months old.

“It’s going to choke me up … but I found it really hard …

“I didn’t want to do the whole goodbye thing [when he went to Afghanistan], so I booked a flight for me and my daughter to go to Melbourne, and said, ‘Just drop me at the airport; don’t say anything; just go.’

“I could see his reflection as I was entering the plane, and the baby was fussing, and he went to come over, and I had to put up my hand [to say] don’t, because I didn’t want to lose it …“You just had to get on with it.”

Christine and her family

Christine Hall with her husband Stephen and their children Ava  and Elise.

She would do her shopping during the week to avoid seeing families together and would send care packages full of lollies to her husband each week as she anxiously awaited news from him.

“It was pretty intense,” she said. “I was a busy with a baby, but in your mind, you’re always thinking, I hope they’re okay.

“When he went to Afghanistan, they had to wear body armour and carry a weapon everywhere, even to the bathroom.  It’s strange, but that’s their life at that period of time.

“He was in Signals Corps and in IT, so we did get some messages over the internet, and a couple of emails … but it was always limited.

“I used to wake up early and just check to see if he was online and wait for a message.

“Anything we got was a total bonus … so when the phone goes, you jump on it. You could be at the bank or something, and you can see that a private number is calling, so you stop everything, and hope that you don’t fumble and hit the hang up button instead of answer.

“If you miss a phone call, you’re kicking yourself for days because you don’t know when they’re going to call again. 

“When casualties happened, the communications went into lockdown and you didn’t hear from them for a few days until they had notified the families, and that’s when you panic. You want the phone to ring, not a knock at the door.”

Christine

It’s such a big part of me now ... and if someone asks me about it I can explain and tell them our story.

She will never forget how she felt when he arrived home safe and well.

“The baby had grown a lot, and I was in a flood of tears,” she said. “You are so relieved and so happy to see them.”

Today, her tattoo is a permanent reminder of these experiences.

“It’s a representation of me and every other army wife and partner that has missed their partner when they’re deployed, or even on exercise,” she said.

“People who are serving are real people – they have families, and they do make sacrifices. They miss their families. Their families are missing them. You don’t know what they are seeing over there. You don’t know what they experience.”

She hopes to one day add a rose and a poppy for their two daughters – Ava Rose and Elise Poppy.

“We might think that our story is small, but it may mean something to someone else as well,” she said. 

“The army touches a lot of lives, and I think everyone’s got a story to tell.

“I’m just so happy he came back in one piece.”

Ink in the Lines is now on display. For more details, visit here.