In the Company of Marines continues

NOVEMBER 9, 2018
A couple days ago my daily Facebook memories notice posted a blog I had written two years ago, that included drawings and finished artwork, on the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit that had been conducting joint training with the US Navy on board the USS Bataan. And there I was in the studio scanning drawings brought back the night before after spending 12 days with the Marines, many from the 4th Regiment, 3rd Marine Division from Okinawa, conducting ITX (integrated training exercises) at beautiful Camp Wilson at 29 Palms, California. It was yet another reminder how rapidly time flies.
To this season ingrained New York Berkshire inhabitant, the Mojave Desert is a pretty ruthless and relentlessly arid, rocky, sandy, dusty place. Landing in Palm Springs (that's a whole other monologue on bizarre settings) I passed Joshua Tree on the way to Camp Wilson and for the life of me couldn’t understand what or why this place is such a magnet location, other than maybe the strange looking trees. No offense meant. There were houses scattered throughout the sand and sagebrush, and obviously people choose to live on soil that defies cultivation for crops, in large part because it’s not soil. It’s rocks, gravel, sand and dust and a total of 4 inches of rain yearly. Curiously, two weeks before arriving it seemed Mother Nature dump all 4 inches in one day and flooded the area. You’d never really be able to ascertain that other than from observing huge ravines carved out of the dirt roads off the main highways. I was warned that it would be brutally hot but the temperature was atypically benign for the time of year and the dry air felt good to the sinuses once you made peace with the dustiness. Having established these qualifications it must be said that the sunrises and sunsets were breathtaking. The middle of the night visits to the latrine were opportunities to view the humbling and overwhelming panorama of the stars overhead.
I wasn’t aware of Camp Wilson’s reputation till I mentioned my travel plans to friends and my son who’ve served in the Corps. “Camp F’n Wilson”.  “Whatever you do, don’t ask to stay at Camp Wilson.”  “But that’s where I’ll be.”  “HAH HAHAHAHA.” To be honest, it wasn’t terrible. It must have been quite an experience going back to Vietnam War days but I’ve slept and showered at far worse locations (and some of those locations didn’t even have showers). My hooch was one of those rounded metal containers that look like a giant can of Green Giant peas cut in half and stuck sharp side down into the ground. The cots were decent enough. The Marines I shared the space with, along with my other civilian artist friend, John Deckert, were a fine young group of warriors; different nationalities, religious ( or non) backgrounds, of various musical tastes that seemed to center around loud metal and rap. One subject that didn't come up, at least to my ears, was politics, other than a rare comment about being sick and tired of the news. What they did talk about at great length was video games. When not training, doing their various tasks at the camp or sleeping, they were pretty fixated on their cell phones or laptops and the games they played on them. They wrestled and razzed each other. On my second night there the hooch went into an uproar as nearly a dozen of these physically imposing figures hopped around en masse screaming, simultaneously jumping away from and trying to catch a mouse racing that was racing from cot to cot. It was finally grabbed and, contrary to what one might expect, gently released outside. Most all were terribly polite and open to conversation. John Deckert, an old Marine himself and an engaging personality, was far more inclined to share extended conversation with these young men. He had that energy to keep talking even after a strenuous, hot day drawing in the sun and sand. Our Marine combat artist partner, Sgt. Elize McKelvey, who's been part of the National Museum of the Marine Corps combat art program, stayed in a hooch for the female Marines. We would begin our days meeting at the chow hall for breakfast (eggs and rice and maybe an apple for my gluten sensitive belly) and coffee and discuss what we wanted to draw and getting the appropriate assistance to accomplish the tasks.
We didn’t often work together. John really wanted to track along with the tanks and artillery and spent almost half his time sleeping under the stars with the units. Sgt. McKelvey would cover other aspects in the field and on the base. We did work together on events like the MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) rehearsal in a mock city. House to house combat training and casualty evacuations and treatment. We stuck with our designated coyotes (instructors who were also evaluating the effectiveness of the teams). They made sure we didn't trip any mock IEDs in the alleyways or buildings.
For me the first few days were exercises in chasing after boots on the ground during rapid fire changes of situations. It’s why God created cameras- trying to draw 5 second visuals soon felt morbidly comic and was eating up valuable sketch pad paper. My preference for drawing pads without qualification is Moleskine. But they are not cheap. Page after page of abandoned scribbles strarts adding up. Then there was a different challenge of trying to capture large numbers of Marines assembled for incredibly long and detailed briefs at an enormous (I heard second biggest on record) topographical scale model of the surrounding region where the various units would be positioned. Several Marines in the hooch I shared were responsible for this impressive achievement in scale modeling. These very extended briefs are called ROC (Rehearsal of Concept) walks. Essentially a verbal rehearsal of battle plans ingrained into the units by daily repetition. Unit commanders would take turns briefing from his or her position on the battle map, often standing on the scale sized mountains, their plans of action for battle. I found myself struggling to capture the scale of these groupings, very passive, motionless affairs, on a two page spread while listening to the mind-numbing flood of information and acronyms. The initial drawings felt tentative and fishing for a language of marks and gestures for the first three days or so. The warm up, getting accustomed to the environment period is a constant regardless where I go. The initial sense of being in over my head never varies.
I finally started finding my footing about half way into the mini embed, spending a nice chunk of time with the CLB (Combat Logistics Battalion), in one spot as the actual war games played out over the mountains. What felt like a potentially passive and mundane situation, drawing engineers repairing guard towers, very different from tagging along with house to house fighting, soon turned into an opportunity to create some narrative visual documentation. By the end of my time there that first day I knew I was in the zone and from then on the drawings started feeling like they had some weight. Still, plenty of fails, plenty of pages turned in the Moleskine pads. Most important lesson, relearned every time I’m on missions like this; admit a fail- quickly- turn page, start again. 
At least one lesson, if not many, is learned on each of these assignments and filed in the memory bank for the next ones. And sometimes the lessons from the past are reinforced. Carry light. I no longer bring tons of different pads, pencils, brushes, paints, etc.. Too much weight, too much pointless lugging around. We're not setting up easels and laying out paints in highly fluid environments. My art supplies have over time pared down to a few Moleskine pads and pencils, which continue to be fewer in number- my internal accountant tabulates the number worn down by the end of a day and how much truly needs to pack into pockets- and as of this trip 6 tubes of gouache- basic red, blue, yelloe, black white and maybe another blue or red because I'm feeling insecure. Actually, I believe it's insecurity that would drive me to overpack in the past. A sense that I'd run out of something and be stuck; as if oversupply provides protection from failure. I'm a slow learner but learn is what I eventually do. An electric pencil sharpener if I know outlets are available on or near location. Digital camera and a number of rechargeable batteries essential, especially if shooting in RAW. 
I learned this time that the experiences covering MOUT operations in Quantico are different from what we experienced at 29 Palms. Quantico is more or less basic training, and as a sketch artist I could, from observing repeats of exercises, determine where to be for the next team to continue what I couldn't complete before. Not so here. These ITX events are very close to real combat experience, there is no repetition of maneuver as battle is inconsistent and unpredictable. I realized these would be near impossible to game for best position for the next team, because the next team wasn't coming. I took nowhere near as many photos as I should have, but think that there is enough in the bank to work with. John Deckert took somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 shots with his iPhone. He didn't even bring a camera.
The commanding officers were very enthusiastic about our presence on the mission and once we really started rolling very grateful for the attention spent on their Marines. This was their first time dealing with people who ‘draw on the spot’ and it’s very different from photographers they’ve been so accustomed to. I’m sure they were feeling it out how to accommodate us. We often heard the comically inaccurate description from Marines, and it would make us laugh, that we were drawing “photos” of them. It didn't take long though for our reputation on the base to be getting attention. It seemed that many knew about us before we even met. It was pretty noteworthy the number of Marines, from commanding officers on down the ranks, wanting to share images of their kids' drawings and paintings and letting us know how much they enjoyed and supported their kids' creative aspirations. I'm sure I'll be hearing from some of those sons and daughters since I gave their parent's my card. Until I do hear from them my advice remains, keep drawing.
Many thanks to Colonel Jason Perry, First Sergeant Morris, Sergeant Major Luis “Chino” Leiva, Master Guns Llanos, Corporal Cardenas, the lieutenants and captains and staff sergeants for their hospitality and patient willingness to explain the details to these civilian ears. I’m pretty certain that as more finished artwork is completed they will be posted on this blog. Looking forward to the next mission.
I'm always waiting to be surprised with comments about the work and in relation to the subject matter I draw. Master Guns Llanos, looking at this drawing, and in response to a question I asked regarding the martial arts training, "The first time you get hit in the face is when you really become a Marine. The violence is real and the training in the pit is serious. Most people don't get into fights (he hails from the streets of New York where mixing it up was part of growing up) and the martial arts training breaks down that normal resistance to violence." (My attempt at a close to verbatim quote.)
Not sure how this Marine felt as I tailed and circled him while he conducted mine sweeping duties. Every which way he turned I followed to continue adding details.
A quick drawing of John Deckert drawing.
Sgt. McKelvey in the BDOC tent.
Me showing a bunch of false starts and sketching fails.
Sgt. McKelvey, YT, and John Deckert.
The Marines had their coyotes following and evaluating their training. Not until the last two days did I encounter desert coyotes close up. This one accompanied me for a short while as I left Camp Wilson to return home.
Lt. Sanchez was a very cool manager of the BDOC (Base Defense Operations Center), maintaining her composure and focus as reports and communications, and to the frustration of staff, lack of, came flying in from all directions. I met her the next day at the chow hall during breakfast and after watching me try to keep up with note taking her explanations of what went down the day before, calmly took my pad and meticulously laid out the chain of command and interactions between units.
Sleeping accommodations in the field were spare. John Deckert offered to bring extra sleeping bags as he was driving down to 29 Palms from northern California. This made my own travel packing simpler and I am very grateful for his offer. Not bringing along one of John's mats to place under the sleeping bag made sleeping on the very rocky sand problematic enough. Every hour or so the humvee just 15 feet or so away in the command station would be restarted to insure the battery stay charged. Reminded me of when I shared a loft in NYC decades ago right above a fire department and 4-5 times a night the fire engines would go screaming out to some alarm.
About the only personnel who stay somewhat stationary, which isn't really saying much, were the coyotes who monitored, observed, and prodded the Marines with questions about what they were doing or going to do next.
One of the earlier drawings. Formal, staid, informative but still looking for the right mental camera angle. MSgt. Mendoza laying out a multitude of considerations in potential scenarios to the Marines who would be handling guard tower duties.
© 2024 Victor Juhasz