CAMP BAHARIA, Iraq -- On the job, Lance Cpl. Luis Bonilla wields two weapons to accomplish his mission: an online personnel database and a set of paintbrushes.
Not even the 12 plus hours he puts in every day dealing with Marines' administrative issues, nor the hardships of living in a combat zone, prevent this 21-year-old Browns Mills, N.J., native from creating his artwork.
"I got into drawing around the time I was in fifth grade. I would carry my notebook everywhere," explained Bonilla, an administrative clerk with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "I picked it up from my sister, Laura, because she used to doodle all the time and make up characters."
The fire for art lit in grade school soon fanned into a roaring blaze.
As a senior at Pemberton Township High School, Bonilla had already taken four years worth of fine arts and crafts classes, along with receiving state-level recognition while participating in the Teen Arts Competition. The aspiring artist had drawn a self-portrait sketch using oil pastels, and his work had been showcased at places such as the Smithfield Mansion.
For all his talent, Bonilla found himself at a crossroads after graduating in 2002.
"I had no college plans lined up," he said. "I joined the Marines Corps because I really hadn't done anything to prepare for life after high school."
"I wanted a desk job, honestly, because I was trying to stay away from the infantry life," Bonilla continued.
Ironically, he wound up in his present 'grunt' command in 2003, only to deploy alongside his infantry brethren to Afghanistan one year later.
Now, he finds himself overseas once more, helping Marines resolve their pay and promotion issues. Bonilla also serves as his battalion's awards clerk, ensuring that citations are written correctly and to standard.
From 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., his usual 'graveyard' work shift, Bonilla serves his role as an administrative customer service representative. But when the day's work is done, he turns to his more creative endeavors. He picks up a red wooden slab with a white star on the center and begins sketching a Native American chief's head on it. He props the large board atop his work area, a wooden desk littered with as many pencil sketches as personnel rosters, and starts coloring in the headdress feathers.
Having recognized his talent, Bonilla's command recently asked the admin-artist to draw their battalion's logo on several wooden boards for display around the camp. It is this assignment that he puts the final paintbrush strokes on.
"This is the fourth 'Indian head' I've done so far," Bonilla said. "I made a big four-by-four (feet) one that's now displayed near the camp's front gate, and two other three-by-three ones."
From the sign welcoming troops aboard Baharia, to the camp's chapel, and even to the inside of the unit commander's office, Bonilla's Indian heads are showcased all around as a proud symbol of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment's warrior legacy.
“The Marines and sailors of 1/6 hold particular honor in their rich past, which dates back to July 11, 1917, when the 6th Marine Regiment was formed,” said Sgt. Maj. T.F. Hall, the battalion’s senior enlisted Marine. “Everywhere you look here, you will see the famed ‘Indian head’ on tactical vehicle windshields, correspondence, coins, and patches. (It reminds Marines of) those of the 6th Marine Regiment who came before us and trained hard, fought many battles, and often paid the ultimate price for the pride and reputation we carry today.”
The ‘Indian heads’ have also garnered the admiration of several members of his command, as Bonilla claimed to have a number of Marines interested in having him paint them their own symbols upon the unit's return to the U.S.
Despite the admiration and praise his work has received, he maintains his humility and love of creating art for beauty's sake alone.
"I have four people interested in having me make them Indian heads when we get back; one of them even offered to pay me $100," Bonilla stated. "I've never charged for my artwork, though."
He continues creating camp-beautifying projects as he assists his teammates fight the war on terrorism here. As Bonilla performs his daily administrative and artistic labors, his thoughts often stray to his career goals upon leaving the Corps in approximately one year.
"I plan to get out and attend art school, probably Creighton University in Nebraska," he stated. "I want to try a little bit of every art field out to discover what my strongest areas are before choosing something to specialize in. I'd even be happy working as an elementary school art teacher, because working with kids is awesome."
Whatever masterpieces Bonilla paints on future canvases, the young artist will forever remain grateful to the military for providing him the means to pursue his creative passions.
"The Marine Corps was kind of a wake-up call for me, making me realize how much I took my family and everything back home for granted before. They've helped fund my schooling, and they helped me get off my butt to do something with my life."