Last week I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to join Col. Craig Streeter, former Marine Cobra Pilot and latest poor soul to wear the hat of USMC Combat Artist, while he spent a couple of days warming up his skills before he heads for Afghanistan shortly to continue a proud tradition: documenting the experience of war through art. USMC Combat Artist Mike Fay, illustrator/war artist Victor Juhasz and myself were there to give a little support to his endeavor and as much advice as we could on operating as an artist in a hostile environment. I was brushing up, too. I’m heading to Afghanistan myself in a few days to spend some time with the U.S. International Security Assistance Force troops overseeing the end of combat.

It was just like any other day out sketching in the Virginia countryside with a group of landscape artists, aside from the sporadic mortar rounds, emplaced tanks, smoke, impassioned screaming, crack of AR15s and the braaaap of live M240 machine gun rounds echoing around the fields. We were dropped into the middle of a full-scale live-fire drill at Quantico that went something like this: Three groups of Marine lieutenants from the basic school were being taught how to assault enemy fixed-tank positions. In good order each group of Marines split into two forces along a dirt road out of sight of the enemy infantry positions. One group with heavy machine guns would then lay down suppressing fire on the enemy positions, while the other half assaulted under that machine gun fire over open ground on one flank. With the enemy infantry routed, the ground assaulters would then occupy their vacated holes and repel any counterattack, while simultaneously the supporting machine gunners would shift position right to pressure the tanks while calling in artillery and laying mortars. Got it? Nothing to it, right?

Obviously the trick for us was to keep the hell out of the way, while also getting in the thick of it. So we split up. Each group of lieutenants was accompanied by a swarm of emotionally volatile instructors and now a couple of physically fragile artists. This was akin to drawing while running. No sooner was a sketch begun than it was discarded with the next movement. We ran through the drill three times before returning exhausted to the truck for a sitdown, some note comparing, and an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat).

As frenetic as these sketches are, looking back at them there is still something to them when all viewed together like this. We spent a little while with Col. Streeter answering his questions and reviewing what we had drawn and pointing out things we could have done better.

In the afternoon session, I moved with the Marines who were assaulting over open ground. I now had a good feeling for what was going on and where to position myself to stay out of the way of stray bullets, and where I was most likely to find subjects that might linger for longer than sixty seconds. I ended up with this sketch of 24-year-old Lt. Evans, a self-proclaimed “military brat” from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Lt. Evans’ father had been in the Marines for 22 years before retiring as a major. You’ll eventually spot a theme here. All the time I was drawing I was thinking “faster, faster.”

I stuffed the sketchpad up underneath the Kevlar and ran to keep up as the Marines fired and maneuvered their way in on target. Rockets hidden in the grass shot skyward and dummy noisemaking artillery rounds intermittently burst above us. It was by no means battlefield conditions, but knowing you have live rounds in weapons all around pushes the adrenalin up a notch anyway.

The drawings started to improve to the point where I was almost surprised at what was possible. Certainly there was no time to second-guess or to draw the same line twice, but overall as my speed improved and my accuracy dwindled the sketches were still pretty good. I drew Lt. Bare as he lay in position to repel the coming counterattack. Probably eight minutes work, me following him as his field of fire shifted. The key to this one was the tread on the sole of the boots and the grass swallowing his legs.

I was also starting to get a feel for the gear and equipment the Marines were wearing. Understanding what I am drawing has always been a key to good sketching for me. This has at times freaked out models in life drawing classes when I have stood up to cross the room and stare at them in close-up.

This sketch, of 24-year-old Lt. Alexander Pascually of Seattle, WA., was done in a shockingly short period of time while on the move, and shows the benefit of repeatedly drawing the equipment. Although he moved quite a bit while waiting for the assault I just followed him around sketching, like an ‘artistic’ tail in a spy movie. I found I was sketching the memory of what I had just seen, then moving till I saw it again. He didn’t even know the sketch had been done till it appeared in his email inbox the next day. Lt. Pascually said his training will help him become a benefit for American society in general. He believes the Marines “shape young men and women who … see themselves as community leaders with real ownership of the country they served.” His grandfather was a USMC artillery officer.

Late in the afternoon, I ended up squatting in the dirt near the M240 machine gun crews, mortar teams and assorted infantry all pouring fire on the emplaced tanks on the other side of the valley. Green and yellow smoke blew across the entire scene. I was hunkered down, leaning against a fence post and drawing the Marine nearest me. At this point in the day I had reached that ‘promised land of drawing’ where you are watching what you see to one side almost miraculously traced onto the paper in front of my eyes – the holy grail of sketching utopia. It doesn’t happen to me often, but boy, what a rush when it does.

When the final cease-fire came and the smoke had cleared, I asked the Marine for an email address so I could send on the art. Lt. Lauren Neal wrote it quickly in the corner of the page while an instructor glared.

Lt. Neal, 27, from Del Mar, CA. is a WM – a classic military acronym (of which they have many) for Woman Marine. Damned if I could tell the difference when I was drawing her. She was as calmly confident and capable as every other Marine I saw putting rounds down range. Lt. Neal says she joined the Marines because she wanted to make a difference. A story you have no doubt heard before. Lt. Neal, however, gave up her job as a lawyer, one year after passing the bar, to join up. She is a fourth-generation officer, although the first in the Marines. Her father, grandfather and great grandfather all were in the Navy.

As I was hoofing it back to the ridge with a couple of dozen Marines, an instructor walked up beside me said, “You are not quite what we were expecting.” I raised an eyebrow, but I didn’t have the energy to clarify whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. I just took it as a compliment. But here is to Lt. Lauren Neal — and to not being what people are expecting, a good rule for life.

Which brings me back to Col. Streeter, the unexpected combat artist who graduated from command and staff, finished his Pentagon tour, commanded the Cobra/Huey squadron, deployed to Stuttgart as AFRICOM’s Fires and Effects Branch Chief and then came to Quantico as director of the Futures Assessment Division. But the combat art program had intrigued him since 2004, when he read about it and reached out to Mike Fay, who critiqued his portfolio of sketches and paintings over the years. In February, his wife, Chris-Ann, saw Mike’s artwork as part of the Joe Bonham exhibit at a charity event and urged him to get back in touch. He learned that Mike had retired in 2010 and that the legendary Ssgt Kris Battles also was about to retire — and that would leave the storied Marine Corps combat art program without anyone. So he “worked up the courage” to inquire about the position and met with keepers of the flame at the Marine Corps Museum and the history division.

“I honestly don’t believe anyone thought I’d be able to convince Marine Corps leadership to assign me, an active duty Marine Corps colonel, as a combat artist,” Streeter explained via email. “To everyone’s surprise — even mine — they did.” He said he hopes he can “uphold the fine tradition…and produce works of art worthy of the collection.”

Below is a selection of sketches from the good colonel’s first couple of days as a field artist. There is a more than healthy spark of talent here, and that, mixed with a certain amount of military stubbornness, will be enough to kick the quality up a couple of levels in Afghanistan.

As a Marine Colonel, he really ought to have no problem mustering stubbornness. So my seemingly obvious piece of advice is this: simply refuse to let your skill get in the way of your will, sir. Adapt and overcome, my friend, and keep your head down.

The same rules apply. Get out there and start drawing. Draw what you see – live – and send it in. I’ll publish it here in the deepest vault of Washington Post blogging.

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