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Combat artist immortalizes slain Fallujan leader

11 Aug 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

Maj. Alex J. Durr’s latest piece of artwork won’t hang in a museum. It’s going to be on display for Fallujans to remember one of their martyred heroes.

Durr, a 45-year-old combat artist from the Marine Corps’ Historical Division, recently put the finishing touches on a painted mural of Iraqi Brig. Gen. Khodeiri Obeid Abbas Al Janadi, Fallujah’s former Deputy Chief of Police, who was gunned down by insurgents June 19. Durr was commissioned to do the piece by Col. Larry Nicholson, RCT-5’s commander, to honor a “Son of Fallujah” who was killed protecting the city and people he loved.

The mural was painted on a concrete barrier and will be placed along a main route through the heart of the city. It will be on permanent display to honor the native Fallujan’s sacrifice for his city and his country.

“I’ve done portraits, but nothing ever this big,” said Durr, from Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s pretty satisfying that this will be put to use immediately.

“To think this guy lost his life for his country— it’s pretty humbling,” he added. “That’s gone through my head a couple times.”

The nearly six-foot tall concrete barrier features a portrait of Khodeiri in the full uniform of an Iraqi Police officer, with the epaulettes of an Iraqi brigadier general. The inscription above him, written in Arabic, reads, “Son of Falluah.”  Next to his face is written, “hero” and “martyr.” Below him is his full name and the date he was slain.

Durr’s involvement in the project was happenstance. He was traveling throughout the region since July when he lost a sketchbook on one of Camp Fallujah’s buses. The driver later told him a Marine turned it into RCT-5. Durr checked in with Sgt. Maj. Melvin Roundtree, RCT-5’s sergeant major, to see if it turned up. Roundtree immediately took him into Nicholson’s office.   

Nicholson was looking for an artist to paint the mural when he showed up for his sketchbook.  Nicholson requested his help, and Durr got to work immediately.

“It’s important to recognize not just American heroes, but Iraqi heroes,” Nicholson said. “Khodeiri will always be a hero to me. He cared deeply for the city. He was a partner in every sense of the word. His loss had a deep impact on the city.”

Durr had his work cut out for him. There were only a couple pictures on file of Khodeiri. He wanted to portray him in full uniform, but couldn’t locate any photos of him wearing his black beret. So he improvised.

“They showed me a picture of an Iraqi saluting and a picture of Khodeiri,” Durr explained. “I took the face from one photo and the position from another.”

It wasn’t just the photos to work from that Durr had to compromise on. He didn’t have a complete supply of paints. He worked with the regiment’s logistics Marines to acquire a couple buckets of paints in the primary colors, along with white, bright orange and purple – just in case. From there, he used cut-down water bottles to mix colors to achieve the shades he needed. He used plastic plates from the camp’s chow hall as a palette. 

“It was a big group effort,” he said. “I’m just the one putting on the paint.”

Durr said painting the portrait, although done on a large scale, followed the fundamentals he learned years ago.

“What makes a portrait work is getting the eyes right and the position of the nose and mouth,” he explained. “Get those right and people will recognize it as that person.”

After that, he said, basic principals apply. It’s just when painting big, everything is bigger. Durr said he used bigger brushes and bigger strokes.

“You just enlarge everything,” he said. “You don’t get bogged down in the details.”

It’s a skill Durr perfected nearly his entire life. He said he’s drawn and painted since grade school. He studied art at Florida State University when he bumped into Marine recruiters. His family had a strong military tradition and he said the step into uniform was natural, even if it took him away from his passion.

Durr was trained as an aviator, flying F-4 Phantoms and eventually F-18 Hornets. Still he kept up with his artwork as a side hobby.

“I always did pictures for the squadrons,” he said. “I was the guy who designed the squadron t-shirts.”

It wasn’t until the Gulf War did Durr get serious about combining his art skills with his call to service as a Marine. He looked into becoming a combat artist, but was turned down. About two years ago, though, Durr, now in the Marine Reserves, checked into becoming a combat artist again. Now, he’s the officer-in-charge of the Historical Division’s combat artists.

“I do a lot of watercolors and drawings,” he said. “Big pieces are done as oil paintings.”

Durr said he’s working much along the same lines as Marine combat artists have since WWII. He said then artists would make sketches or take photos of fighting during the Corps’ island-hopping campaign, go back to the rear lines, and put them to canvas.  He said he’s actually seen a painting done by a WWII combat artist with an address on the back of the canvas so it could be mailed home to his wife.

Little has changed more than 60 years. Durr still totes his sketch book. His camera now though is a small, palm-sized digital camera, complete with the Marine Corps’ digital desert camouflaged pattern.

“It’s usually up to the artist where he paints,” Durr said. “The big paintings we do back home, when we want to put more thought and time. I can take a digital picture, blow it up on my laptop and do them there.”

Durr said there’s still a place for the paintings, even in today’s technology of digital photos and instant transmission of video and images from the battlefield.

“Done right, an oil painting will last a thousand years,” Durr said. “When I think of the guys out there, living in the dirt, it’s the least I can do. We document and record how they’re living and fighting. Maybe someday they come to the museum and see a painting and it jars their memory and they’ll tell their kids how it was.”

Durr knows that this work will never be in a museum, but will be on display for more than 200,000 Fallujans. It will preserve Iraqi history – Fallujan history – for all to remember one of their own men who stood up for their pride against terrorists.

“What an amazing opportunity to have a piece of his work displayed so publicly,” Nicholson said. “I told him, ‘Not only are you recording history. You’re making it.’”

Lt. Col. Frank Charlonis, RCT-5’s Police Implementation officer, said the portrait is satisfying to all those who knew and worked with Khodeiri. He worked hand-in-hand with him since January to grow and train Fallujah’s police force.

“He was one of the ‘Sons of Falluah,’” said 40-year-old Charlonis, from Charlotte, N.C. “His death has really affected the city. It had a big affect on the police.”

Charlonis said the mural will serve to honor one of the city’s leaders, who saw Iraqis through tough times.

“It will serve as an inspiration to the police,” he said. “It will always be there to remind them of what it means to be an Iraqi and from Fallujah.”

Durr said he saw his efforts on the portrait as just another Marine pulling his weight to accomplish the mission in Iraq.

“This is for a good cause,” Durr said. “Maybe it will help them to understand their struggle against terrorism.  It’s part of the team effort. I’m lucky enough to do something I enjoy doing.”