Marine Uses Art Skills In Recon Community
by U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Isaac Cantrell
There are few tokens of gratitude within the Marine Corps that
carry as much weight as the paddle ... a staple of the
Reconnaissance community that symbolizes the respect and honor that
a unit holds for a specific Marine.
A tradition that dates back to
World War II, Recon Marines would be issued a paddle at the
beginning of their training that they would be required to take with
them everywhere. When it came time for a Recon Marine to leave a
unit, their teammates would take their paddle and repurpose it,
placing a plaque on the blade and using paracord to intricately wrap
the handle to present as a parting gift to their fellow Marine.
Sergeant Maj. William F. Fitzgerald III, the sergeant major of United States Marine Corps Forces South, is awarded a reconnaissance paddle by Maj. Bradford Carr, commanding officer of Force Reconnaissance Company, II Marine Expeditionary Force on October 29, 2010. Fitzgerald was the guest of honor at the Force Reconnaissance Co. ball. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Daniel A. Wulz)
Aside from the plaque and some other minor adornments,
the blade of the paddle typically remains relatively blank when
compared to the ornate wrappings on the handle. To Cpl. Michael
Cenci, a force reconnaissance Marine with the 31st Marine
Expeditionary Unit’s (MEU) Maritime Raid Force (MRF), this blank
space was an opportunity for something more.
“All of the
wrappings have meaning, but they don’t have as much meaning as the
blade of the paddle itself,” Cenci said. “It’s a big canvas, so I
take the opportunity to draw and paint detailed backgrounds, which I
think ends up capturing the setting or the mood of the whole paddle
and what it’s meant to represent, more so than any wrapping can.”
Cenci, a native of Malvern, Pennsylvania, has been drawing since
he was young. As a child, his uncle gifted him sketch books and
pushed him to further his artistic development. This encouragement
carried on through his time at Malvern Preparatory School, where he
took art electives each year.
In addition to advancing his artistic
talent, it was here that Cenci also began to develop an appreciation
for the camaraderie that comes from being part of a team, playing
sports throughout his high school career.
After graduating in 2013, Cenci enrolled at Savannah College of
Art and Design in Georgia and majored in sequential art, but soon
found out that it wasn’t all that he had hoped it would be. With a
lack of a team to be a part of and an almost overbearing focus on
self-promotion of his art work, he began to feel his passion for
“As I progressed in my curriculum in college,
my love for drawing started to dissipate,” Cenci said. “It got to
the point where I started to worry that I would never love it again
or have it as a form of release and joy.”
After leaving Savannah, drawing
began to fall to the back burner, becoming more of a hobby for
Cenci. Instead, he began to shift his focus toward finding a career
and going to the gym. He always knew that he wanted to be a part of
something that had a good team atmosphere, and as his experience at
school had proved lacking, he began looking elsewhere.
realized as I got older that I don’t really do anything in
moderation so I asked myself ‘what’s the most extreme team I can
find?’” Cenci said. “So I thought of the Marines and I saw this
thing about Recon and then I decided to pull the trigger on that.”
March 5, 2020 - Cpl.
Michael Cenci (middle left), a force reconnaissance Marine
with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit's Maritime Raid
Force, holds a
Reconnaissance Foundation flag at Hat Yao, Kingdom of
Thailand, following the completion of Exercise Cobra Gold 2020. Cobra Gold 20 was the largest theater security cooperation exercise in the Indo-Pacific region and an integral part of the U.S. commitment to strengthen engagement in the region. (Image
created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Isaac Cantrell)
After graduating from Marine Corps School of Infantry West,
Cenci felt he was physically ready for Basic Reconnaissance Course
(BRC) but didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect. Upon his
arrival, he spoke with some Marines in the class before him and saw
that they were sketching in their notebooks ... a skill that is
encouraged for Reconnaissance Marines so that they can gain a better
understanding of target sites. Cenci’s interest was immediately
“I had already been drawing overheads of streets and
neighborhoods and places I would go, and that transferred over well
when I got to BRC and we started patrol phase,” Cenci said, flipping
through a weathered “Rite in the Rain” notebook, revealing page
after page of sketches of intricately drawn landscapes and hastily
drawn overheads and explaining the importance of each drawing.
“On overhead drawings, it’s much more important to get the message
across rather than all of the details and shadings. It more
resembles a map, while the panoramic drawings I do when I’m on the
hide site for like 48 hours or more tend to be a lot more detailed.
Panoramic drawings help me to get that intimate knowledge of the
target,” Cenci explained.
“You could always take a picture in
a hide site ... and a picture does tell a thousand words ... but if
I can draw and bring back sketches, it basically tells a story
beyond that one picture,” Cenci went on to explain. “It shows an
intimate knowledge of the target site and the enemy. It’s kind of a
cocky display ... the enemy didn’t see me as literally I sat there
and drew them. I basically put up an easel in their back yard.”
After his graduation from BRC, Cenci reported to 3rd
Reconnaissance Battalion on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, where he began
working his artistic talent into the traditions of the community.
The new surroundings and brotherhood of his new unit rejuvenated
Cenci’s previously diminished passion for art.
In addition to his
drawing of landscapes and overheads, he also began doing freehand
sketches and making tattoo designs for his fellow team members,
feeling that he now had more artistic freedom and a sense of pride
in his work that he had never felt in school. It was around this
time that he first began working on paddles.
“In college, I
was totally against putting myself out there for people to see my
art and saying ‘look at me, this is what I drew,’” Cenci elaborated.
“However, it’s a totally different thing when it goes on a paddle.
Now, I think the coolest part of me painting on a paddle and that
paddle being presented to somebody is that that paddle is going to
go with that Recon Marine wherever they go for the rest of their
With the decoration of these paddles came a sense of
pride for Cenci. After designing and painting the paddles, the eyes
are drawn to the blade of the paddle, which draws attention to the
plaque and what ... or more importantly who ... it represents.
Currently deployed aboard amphibious assault ship USS America
(LHA 6) in the South China Sea with the 31st MEU, Cenci has kept his
skills sharp throughout the MEU's recent operations in the
Indo-Pacific. Cenci’s most recent paddle ... made for his
brothers-in-arms in the Royal Thai Marine Corps’ Reconnaissance
community following Cobra Gold 2020 ... depicted the sun setting
over the jungles of Thailand. Throughout Cobra Gold, Cenci and the
other Marines of the 31st MEU’s MRF worked hand in hand with Royal
Thai Marines to develop an effective and lethal partnership with the
nation’s oldest ally in Southeast Asia.
“It’s the only way I
feel comfortable expressing myself through art,” Cenci said. “I
think that’s by far the best part about being able to paint the
paddle. And every time a paddle comes along and the team gets
together, we take turns wrapping it ... I think it’s the biggest
privilege to take the time to paint that paddle. The whole paddle is
a team effort.”
America, flagship of the America
Expeditionary Strike Group, 31st MEU team, is operating in the U.S.
7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with allies
and partners and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and
stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
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