Painting pays tribute to fallen Marines
By Linda McIntosh

January 14, 2006

CAMP PENDLETON – When retired Lt. Col. Gary Morris left Camp Pendleton more than 40 years ago to fight in Vietnam, he didn't think he'd come back on base decades later bringing a painting he had made to honor fallen Marines.

Morris donated his painting, "Darkhorse Squad Leader," earlier this month to the Marines and sailors in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

"Darkhorse" is a nickname for the 3rd Battalion. The painting honors people in the battalion who were killed while fighting insurgents during Operation Al Fajr in Fallujah, Iraq.

The inspiration came from a Marine Morris knew, James Patrick "JP" Blecksmith. Morris and Blecksmith's father, Ed, attended The Basic School in Quantico, Va., together.

JP Blecksmith, a second lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion, was killed while leading his platoon during the clearing of insurgents from buildings in Fallujah. The 24-year-old officer was shot by a sniper and died on Veterans Day 2004.

He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2003, where he played varsity football and lettered as a senior wide receiver.

The news of his death hit Morris hard.

"We lost people in Vietnam, but you don't get used to it. You're never prepared for something like this," he said.

Morris' painting is one of the few military pieces he has done since he started painting 36 years ago, shortly after he returned from Vietnam.

"This was the hardest piece I've ever done," he said.

The picture is based on a photo taken by a Marine photographer of a squad leader in Blecksmith's platoon who was on the roof with Blecksmith when he was killed.

"I'd never done this before, and it was somewhat terrifying," said Morris, whose subjects usually include baseball players, cowboys, eagles and fighter planes.

Most of his paintings are completed in 30 to 35 hours, he said. But this one took 126 hours.

He recalled staring in a mirror to get the right expression. He thought about how Blecksmith wanted to bring all his men home safely.

"There's a look of resolve and determination and anger," Morris said.

Morris flew from his hometown of Irving, Texas, for the dedication ceremony.

Lt. Col. Nathan Braden, spokesman for the 5th Marine Regiment, said, "It was a poignant ceremony and Morris spoke our language."

Morris spoke along with Lt. Col. Patrick Looney, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion; Lt. Col. Pat Malay, former 3rd Battalion commander during Blecksmith's deployment in Iraq; and Blecksmith's father, who had served in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Vietnam.

"We are very proud of our son," Ed Blecksmith said, "and while we miss him terribly, we take comfort in the fact that he is remembered in such a loving way by those who were with him in Iraq."

The painting will be on display in the 3rd Battalion headquarters at Camp Mateo on base.