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Dale City Marine molded, immortalized forever at Marine Corps museum

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QUANTICO, Va. — It starts by applying layers of pink goop to the feet, knees, and legs.

The wet concoction forms a wet, warm, molded barrier over the body.

Now totally emersed in goo, a crew places pieces of wet plaster cloth over the top to form the mother mold.

Underneath is Lt. Col. Gordon Miller, a 22-year Marine veteran, and Dale City native. He’s volunteered an afternoon so a crew can make a mold of his body.

Miller’s cast will be featured in a permanent display in the soon-to-open expansion of the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, in a scene from 2002’s invasion of Iraq. Though he served as a Marine Corps Officer in the run up to Bagdad, he — his cast — will portray a non-commissioned officer standing in a in a gun turret inside an all-terrain vehicle (M-ATV) used during the invasion, holding a pair of binoculars.

Miller’s cast will be joined by others who were in the battle, to include Maj. Gen. Herman Stacy Clardy, Gunnery sergeants Brandon Richards and Brian Nelson who were with Miller during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The scene will depict Marines on downtime where one is cleaning a weapon, while another is on a chow break, another is reading a map and plotting a path, and another is answering the call of nature with a roll of toilet paper in hand.

“This scene depicts the common ‘hurry up and wait’ part about combat,” said National Museum of the Marine Corps Gallery Manager Keith Bearley.

The new exhibits to be featured in the museum’s expansion will tell the story of the Marine Corps from the Desert Storm in 1990 to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq today. Other scenes being cast will depict the shura, weekly meetings with local leaders in Afghanistan where Marines explained military operations to citizens.

“We have a lot of Marines who come to visit the museum and say ‘where is our story?’ said Bearly. “Now we’re telling it.”

‘It’s a snapshot of a Marine at that time’

On the floor of an old warehouse on Quantico Marine Corps Base lays an array of casts made from Marines who will be depicted in upcoming scenes in the museum. A total of 70 casts will be done and placed in the scenes, at the cost of about $20,000 each.

The artists work from a large photo that hangs on the wall inside the adjoining studio, where the cast is made. The photo, taken this month, will be used to create the scene with the Marines standing around the M-ATV.

“This is not a snapshot of one single scene or event,” said Bearly. “It’s a snapshot of a Marine at that time.”

The museum team has about 60 photos taken in Iraq during the invasion, some of them featuring Miller and Clardy who are depicted in the scene. The exhibit artists will refer to the photos to make sure that everything from uniforms, to equipment, down to the color of sand on the ground is authentic.

“We want to capture what is was like to be over there,” said Alice Webb, an exhibit specialist at the Marine Corps museum.

Miller, who works at the Pentagon as an infantry advocate, submitted his resume of accomplishments and was selected to me immortalized in the museum.

“It’s a blessing and an honor to be able to capture the sacrifices these people made,” he said.

Portraying a non-commissioned officer is also humbling, said Miller, as they are the ones in the field who translate the orders from commissioned officers to enlisted personnel and ensure they are properly carried out in the field. It’s a unique position not found in other militaries around the world, he said.

Creating the cast

A crew from Taylor Studios traveled from Illinois to Quantico to make the molds. It’s their third trip to Virginia, making about 15 casts per visit.

The team mixes about three gallons of Alginite power into a wet mix that is applied to Miller’s body. It goes on wet, and it’s the same stuff a dentist uses to make an impression of teeth.

The substance dries in about 10 minutes, forming the body and picking up details such as body lines, muscles, even tattoo outlines. Wet plaster cloth is applied to form a hardened shell.

About a half-hour after the molding process begins, a butter knife is used to cut lines down the side of Miller’s leg, cutting the mold in half. The knife is also used to cut a cast of Miller’s torso.

Curt Walker, of Taylor Studios, then takes both halves of the cast to a large table. There he uses superglue to attach small, loose pieces of the hardened pink Alginite to the hardened white cast mother mold. He sprays an aerosol catalyst to help the glue adhere to the surface.

Afterward, the final casting material is poured into the Alginite mold and paintbrush is used to spread it. It’s a blue substance that adheres to the Alginite, creating the final product which will be painted to look like Miller.

It’s slow, detailed work, a job Walker has been doing since 2000. Before that, he also worked with his hands — cutting down trees.

“The most difficult thing to cast is probably arms because they can pose in different directions. You don’t want to mess up,” said Walker.

The National Museum of the Marine Corps opened in 2006 with about half of its circular floor plan completed. The construction effort to “complete the circle” entered its final phase.

This fall, the museum plans to showcase its new amenities to include a new large-screen theater, new art galleries, an art studio, children’s galleries, and the new exhibits where the casts and new artifacts will be on display.

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