These troops deployed to Middle East make war by day, art by night

(Photo: Unsplash, Mike Petrucci)

With its dusty roads, rows of beige trailers, and tall concrete barriers, this base that supplies troops to the fight against ISIS could at first glance be one of a number of outposts in the Middle East.

One colorful feature sets it apart, however: dozens of colorful murals dedicated to specific units, deployment rotations, or specific military communities. Some, faded with time, date back nearly two decades; others are brand-new or in varying stages of completion.

And each of these murals, painted onto the 12-foot concrete barriers that edge main paths through the base, represents something of a labor of love.

On a dark night in late December, a half-dozen airmen work under conveniently located floodlights to create the base’s newest works of art. A three-panel spread will feature the unit insignias of the 407th Air Expeditionary Group and 332nd Expeditionary Air Wing, along with a more ambitious panel depicting all seven aircraft the wing has flown.

The designs are painstakingly blocked out with masking tape to keep the lines sharp and precise as the airmen apply paint by hand. They are volunteering their time, and working long hours at night under artificial light to avoid a conflict with their day jobs.

Tech Sgt. Alison Haas, lead contracting officer for the 332nd Expeditionary Force Support Squadron, told she volunteered when the 407th Air Expeditionary Group Commander, Col. John Gonzalez, solicited within the unit for troops with a background in art.

Haas, 35, had already created a new patch design for her squadron and jumped at the chance to do more artwork for the unit.

“There was a 332nd wing mural, but it was kind of off-center,” she said. “So they wanted it redone.”

But once she and a handful of others signed on to the project, they had to figure most things out on their own, including what materials to use.

“There are some [murals] you can tell they definitely took their time, and there are some that you can tell they definitely used the right paint, because they lasted through the years,” Haas said. “So that’s another thing that was researched, which paint would really stick.”

She couldn’t recall whether they settled on latex or acrylic paint as best suited to withstand the heat, weather and sandstorms on the base.

Working next to her was 22-year-old Airman First Class Matthew Sherbon, a member of security forces for the 407th. Sherbon, who said he had always been interested in art and taken a number of art classes in school, was splitting his time between mural projects for the 332nd Expeditionary Air Wing and the 407th, working by natural light and by floodlights as conditions allow.

“Once it gets dark, I can’t work on mine anymore so I come and work on these,” he said. “Because they have the lights for these.”

The work is tedious and long. Though the artists make various levels of time commitment to the projects and some have already dropped out of the current projects, others commit long hours of every night, for weeks at a time.

Staff Sgt. Shane Materkowski is one of the latter.

A member of the 407th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron who works as the noncommissioned officer in charge at the flightline dining facility, he estimates he puts six to eight hours of work into the group mural every night. Working from 5 p.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. on the project allows him about four hours of sleep before he has to report to the dining facility at 3 a.m.

Materkowski, who calls himself an amateur artist and whose previous artwork has mainly consisted of photography and pencil sketches, beams as he describes the project.

“This is actually my first mural that I’ve ever done, but I think it’s turning out very well,” he said.

He’s working on a unit insignia design that features a stylized eagle against a crossed bow-and-arrow.

In addition to having to make do with available light, he said the work has presented other challenges. Sandstorms, he said, can foul up the paint. And sometimes the chill that settles over the desert at night can force the artists to bundle up, making work more difficult.

In addition to all that, the group is on a tight timeline: they have yet to begin the most complex panel, featuring the aircraft belonging to the wing, and have just one month to complete it before deployments end.

But Materkowski is nonetheless thrilled to be involved with the project.

“Really, this is to leave a legacy and to beautify this base,” he said. “I absolutely love this base; I’ve had a great time being here I really want to leave behind something that says, ‘we were here, we did a good job.’ And really, leave this place looking better than when we arrived.”

Haas said that for her, it came down to unit pride … and bragging rights.

“If we ever come back, hopefully it’s still there. And we can say, ‘hey, I painted that back in 2017,'” she said.

By Hope Hodge Seck,

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One Comment

  1. Carriers and other ships are also places where amazing artist talent is shared: bulkheads painted with murals, musicians, poets, writers of all kinds, rappers, choirs, bands, photographers… The spirit and character find resilience through expression and appreciation of that expression. Thanks for bringing this to light.

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