AL ASAD, Iraq -- Once they turned on helicopters as they flew into combat. Now, they are enshrined with visions of Iwo Jima, Sept. 11, kabars, Purple Hearts and Marines patrolling the deserts of Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Michael Murrell, the 500 division quality assurance representative at Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 26 (Reinforced), paints these images on trashed aircraft blades, spending hundreds of hours turning useless metal into priceless memories for Marines deployed to Al Asad, Iraq, Oct. 23.
“I’ve been making artwork since I was a drill instructor at Parris Island,” said Murrell, a native of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “Down the road, guys will want to have these to show they were Marines and remember this deployment. I try to make them the best I possibly can so it can become the centerpiece of a persons’ accomplishments.”
Murrell is not the typical artist, and due to his robust size and stature, he said most people can’t believe he’s an artist. Yet, he spends nearly all of his off-duty hours working on artwork for other Marines.
“It throws a lot of people off,” said Murrell. “I’m a marital arts instructor, a swim instructor and I’m into art. People look at the pieces I’ve done, then take a double look at me and shake their heads in disbelief.”
Murrell has taken the world that surrounds him and created art. He receives blades from helicopter squadrons and due to the high operational tempo and rocky environment in Iraq, he is kept well supplied.
“The biggest thing is making people happy,” said Murrell, who spends at least 30 to 50 hours on each piece. “People tell me ‘that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen,’ and that fuels the fire to make more.
“A piece of military aircraft strikes people who work around them all the time a certain way. They would want this more than a canvas painting. Each blade I paint is better than the last. I’m constantly trying to improve and learn new skills.”
Murrell said the inspiration behind his art is camaraderie and knowing it will be hanging somewhere for people to see and enjoy for years.
“It’s incredible to see this type of art here,” said Gunnery Sgt. Dexter Conrad, a supply chief with MALS-26, and a Huntington, W.V., native. “I’ve seen it displayed in Washington, D.C.. It’s a piece of living history. It will be wanted throughout the Corps, and might be the only thing my wife lets me put up in the home.”
Conrad, who earned a Purple Heart during Operation Desert Storm when his amphibious assault vehicle hit a tank mine, is having a blade built for him with a Purple Heart enshrined on it.
“I won’t stop working until the blade is just right,” said Murrell. “I consider what the person wants and work with him during the process. I want to make sure he’s going to like it. The Purple Heart I make for Conrad is going to mean something more to him than anyone else. He earned it and had to live through that experience.”
Murrell made his first blades for Marines in his section. But, he said once he was done with them it will be first come, first serve. Since, each blade takes more than a week to paint, he spends most of his off-time working.
“He works a lot later than I stay up,” said Gunnery Sgt. Blake Staehr, the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the quality division department with MALS-26, who lives with Murrell, and whose blade includes gunnery sergeant chevrons.
“He’s quiet as a mouse and works hour after hour,” said the Strousburg, Neb., native. “Sometimes I wake up and the blade has changed immensely, it’s unbelievable. Not that he is mass producing, but you can see the difference after four or five hours of work.”
Murrell retires from work and travels to his barracks to spend more hours painting, every night. His passion for art started when he painted a large glass window for his wife, which, almost brought her to tears.
“I’ve always thought of myself as an artist, father and U.S. Marine,” said Murrell. “I want my art to tell stories. The only thing we have to hold onto is our history as a Corps, and this is another way of always remembering it. I hope kids 20 years down the road can look at them and think about what it was like for us in Iraq.”
Murrell stressed that the blades are special because they are handmade by a Marine, for Marines and are not something that can be bought in stores.
“The operations chief wants a cartoon of the Hulk holding a U.S. flag and wearing a (drill instructor’s) campaign cover,” said Murrell. “She was a drill instructor and that memory is important to her. All I need is a picture of what she wants, and I’ll do it. I can’t wait to see the amazed look on her face. That’s really why I do this, the looks on peoples’ faces.”