Iraq War veteran Russell Ault copes through drawing

By Taylor Smith

“I think about the guys that didn’t make it,” Ault said. “Why am I on this earth?”

They were flames of fiery orange and red that licked the backdrop of the canvas, Russell Ault explained of his painting. The shadowy figure in the center could be any soldier, but the Purple Heart pinned to the fibers, that was his

“You go through hell and you’re still there, still walking, and you still gotta keep on walking,” Ault said, balled fist thumping his thigh. “You live through war over there and you’re still living through war inside yourself.”


Ault, 31, born in Hawaii, currently lives in Beaverton. He was 17 years old when he signed up for the U.S. Army Reserve, performing part-time duty with trainings one weekend per month.

Ault’s specialty was building bridges. He and his fellow soldiers were known for fast construction and demolition, which is why he suspects they were called to serve in the Third Infantry in Iraq beginning Jan. 14, 2003.

Other than a school trip to Japan, Ault had never been outside the United States before. When he heard rockets flying overhead on his first night in Iraq, he remembered thinking this war would be unlike anything he could have ever prepared for.

From the 13 months that Ault served in Iraq, he said he  remembers only bits and pieces — firefights, a sandstorm that lasted for three days, and Aug. 4, 2003, when an improvised exploding device hit the vehicle he was driving. His hand and bicep were struck with pieces of shrapnel, parts of which are still lodged in his body. A fellow soldier in the vehicle received more of the blast, with shrapnel to his face and legs. Both men received Purple Hearts.

For a while, Ault said, he experienced survivor’s guilt.

“I think about the guys that didn’t make it,” Ault said. “Why am I on this earth?”

zw.russault.9.jpeg“Through Hell,” by Russell Ault. The Purple Heart Ault received for his service in Iraq in 2003 is pinned at the center.Russell Ault

 After he returned home from Iraq on Feb. 14, 2004, Ault used his G.I. Bill to enroll at Portland Community College. Besides business and astronomy classes, he decided to take drawing, too.

Besides doodling in his notebooks when he was in grade school, Ault said he had never been that interested in art. With his professor’s encouragement, however, he kept signing up for more classes.

Quickly, drawing became an outlet for Ault to express emotions that he said have been too difficult to explain in words. Through charcoal, ink and paint, he battles the questions that he said still haunt him.

“I left optimistic and came back pessimistic,” Ault said. “I kept asking, ‘What was it all for?’ ” 

He explained, “(It was) for the guys next to me. Not anything else. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The experience has made me nothing but stronger.”

Ault said there are too many veterans who understand his pain, but the darkness usually remains unspoken. In sharing his art, he hopes that it will speak to someone else, perhaps someone who has been touched by war.

“In 20, 30, 40 or 100 years, maybe someone will look (at my paintings) and think, ‘Maybe war isn’t so good,’ ” Ault said. “Maybe it will allow someone to better understand a veteran’s life. Maybe it will even save someone’s life.”

— Taylor Smith