CAMP BABYLON, Iraq -- Three Marines, weighed down with combat gear, walk in the dry heat of the day along their usual patrol route. Their eyes are open to protect against the hazardous terrain, when a booted footfall freezes, the swirling dust stops, and a tick in time is captured in ink.
An individual whose job is to tell a thousand words with a drawing, Marine Staff Sgt. Michael D. Fay, 49, a reservist from Fredricksburg, Va., can be best described as one of a kind. Classified as a combat illustrator, he is the only one in the Marine Corps Reserves with his occupation.
Fay is serving in Iraq, and carrying on the long linage of modern combat illustrators, beginning with artist Winslow Homer, who captured the intensity of the Civil War on canvas.
He expressed that his goal in Operation Iraqi Freedom is, "to provide art that first and foremost stands alone as art."
Fay enjoys doing this unique job for the Marine Corps. He enjoys his job more when he is out in the field with the troops.
"As an artist, (if you) put aside the pistol and dirt and stuff, this is great," said Fay, who earned his bachelor's degree in art education from Penn State University.
Different from a combat artist who is assigned what he draws, Fay has total freedom to portray whatever subject he wants.
"Art is art," Fay said. "Sometimes you don't know ahead of time what you're going to do."
However, within this freedom Fay has tied his subjects to a single theme: the life of the Marines.
When working in the field, Fay does mainly watercolor and ink drawings. By adding careful detail to such colorless sites as a fuel point blackened with oil or a dusty airstrip, he can create a watercolor drawing to convey the gritty conditions of his surroundings.
However, since his watercolor drawings are completed in only a few hours, they do not require the technical detail that more intricate pieces boast. These drawings involve the rough shape of the object.
Trying to draw all the parts of the Humvee, for example, and how they go together "would drive an artist crazy," Fay said.
Fay explained that his technique for drawing intricate objects such as vehicles is to simply lift his glasses onto his forehead. Since he is nearsighted this causes subjects far away to be blurred so he can focus on just simple shapes and not the technical aspects.
When Fay begins a detailed piece, his technique is to photograph his subject and then reproduce it on canvas.
In September the Marine Corps magazine, Leatherneck, had planned to have its cover page feature Fay's charcoal drawing of a Marine coming off a patrol in Afghanistan. Snapping a photograph of the exhausted Marine after he had just taken off his rucksack and helmet, Fay later was able to capture on paper the bone-numbing effort that was routine there.
"That one is absolutely my favorite piece," Fay said. "I think it captures his whole presence."
Unfortunately, another cover was chosen for that issue at the last minute.
Fay currently has had a total of 52 pieces hung in permanent collection since becoming a combat illustrator in January 2002.
More elaborate drawings, such as the one displayed in Leatherneck magazine, are sent to the Combat Art Museum, where Fay helps the curator when he is not mobilized.
The museum holds more than 7,000 works of other combat artists and illustrators that are reproduced in books and magazines, and are loaned to other museums around the world.
One piece of Fay's artwork, titled "All Eyes Down" is currently hanging in the Quantico, Va.-based Heritage Foundation, which raises money that will go toward a building for housing historical Marine Corps artifacts.
The piece depicts a Marine patrol in Afghanistan with all the patrol members scanning the terrain around their feet for mines; again expressing what it is to live in places where Marines must tread.
Fay theorizes that by drawing Marines, he helps with their morale. It makes what they are doing at the moment seem even more important, he said. At various times, troops tell Fay how glad they are his art documents the hardships they've endured.
He has not always been an artist for the Marine Corps. On active duty, he has served far different capacities, from an indirect fire infantryman to a helicopter crew chief.
In Operation Desert Storm, he did a few sketches in his spare time and ended his active duty service time in 1993. Those sketches would help him in the future.
Merely five years later, Fay met Marine Col. Donna Neary, a combat artist with whom he shared his work from Desert Storm. Neary told Fay that his talent is exactly what is sought in a combat artist.
"It's very serendipitous that I'm doing this," Fay said. "It's not a predictable path."
When Fay reenlisted in the reserves last January, he was deployed to Afghanistan as a combat illustrator.
Now, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fay continues to convert Marine Corps life into art. The hardest part is getting into the feel of everything, he says.
Fay already realizes that his work goes far in capturing the ordeal of fellow Marines.
"I'm out here living in the dirt. (My) skin's dry from the sun, and hopefully my art will convey that experience."