Rank and File

Steve White 24” x 20” • Acrylic on Canvas

Steve White
24” x 20” • Acrylic on Canvas

More and more these days, the creative world is seeing an emergence of artists creating positive spaces and shapes that, in turn, cleverly carve out shapes in negative space intentionally. Negative space is, quite simply, the space that surrounds the subject in an image or painting. Just as important as that subject itself, negative space helps to define the boundaries of positive space and brings balance to a composition. My most recent painting, “Rank and File”, is a classic example of negative space use. Providing a place for the eye to rest, the striking white space matched with the beautiful, eccentric black make it, what I hope to be, an unforgettable execution of the technique. In “Rank and File”, the sleeve of the sailor in the foreground is decorated with a perched eagle over three chevrons, which indicates that he’s a Petty Officer First Class (E-6). As we move down the line of sailors, the faces appear to fade into obscurity as the rank of each sailor descends into a predictable need to know basis – All hands on deck!

Inspired by the experiences of Corey Norrell

Lessons from a Son of Neptune
by Kristine Hartvigsen

Like many young men graduating high school without an established career plan, Corey Norell enlisted in the military at age 18. He didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it really. As a Navy brat, it seemed about as good a choice as anything.

“I did not do well in school, so my path forward never looked like college. I joined because, growing up, it was the only thing I really knew,” he explained. “My dad was a career Navy guy, in for 30 years. I grew up living on Naval bases and Marine Corps air stations. And, you know, it was so ingrained in my family. I remember hearing such awesome stories, and I wanted to be able to live that. My older brother and his wife are Navy officers. For me, it was a family business.”

Norell followed his father, brother and sister-in-law into the Navy. He was on active duty from 2007 until 2011 and served in the Reserves for three years after that.

“We did a lot of just busting rust and chipping paint as well as, figuratively and literally, driving the ship,” he said. “I was very proud of what I did. I mean, I got paid to travel the world and drive multibillion-dollar weapons. That’s what they trained me to do.”

At first, the bravado of youth lured Norell into a false sense of assurance. “I’m 18, and I’m hot shit, you know. I’m fit. I’ve got the physical fitness test down pat. I was working out and, yeah, I was in peak physical condition,” he said. However, about a year in, he found himself wishing he had applied himself more in school. In fact, he realized that he knew little about the real world.

“I feel like I struggled trying to figure things out,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much that dedication to education was really going to be important, even though I had decided I wasn’t going to college. I felt like I was back in school and having to re-learn a lot of things I had no idea about, like maintenance. I didn’t know how to work on cars. A light bulb went off and I knew I needed to do better.”
Norell noted that, before joining the Navy, he had not traveled outside the United States. As a Navy brat, he did travel a lot going from coast to coast but not internationally.

Perhaps accordingly, he experienced some culture shock on his first port visit in Mazatlan, Mexico. While ashore, he remembers drinking margaritas and chatting with the locals, which was pretty agreeable. While there, he also met a young woman, and they hit it off.

“She and I exchanged information. There was a definite language barrier, but she was so compassionate and wanted to show me around town,” Norell recalled. “She didn’t have a cell phone, so we just made a plan to meet the very next day at this one location at this specific time. It was very old school. So we met up, and she took me to where she lives.”

Since childhood as a Navy brat, cultural immersion was just normal for Norell and something he truly enjoyed. The young Mexican woman led him away from the tourist part of town to where the locals actually lived. There, he saw people living by very simple means.

“The roads are unpaved, and I remember seeing little kids on the street playing soccer barefoot. It blew my mind that those kids didn’t have shoes,” he said. “And she walked me up to the door of her place, but there wasn’t a door. It was just an opening where a door would be with a shower curtain hanging there. Her parents spoke no English at all, but they were still offering me food and drink and whatever I wanted. They were so accommodating. It was heartwarming. That is one of those memories I will cherish forever.”

Norell marveled at how different attitudes were, how welcoming the Mexicans were of strangers. But Americans in the United States are taught throughout their lives that security is paramount and to always be on guard and protect themselves, to not let people in.

The contrast in lifestyle also made Norell think about his father and how the military represents security to him.

“My dad would tell me about his upbringing and growing up poor,” Norell said. “I think he said he lived in the projects for some time, so he knew what it was like to struggle. A lot of that ended when he joined the military. He wasn’t struggling anymore.”

A fortunate coincidence came early in Norell’s service. His first two years in the Navy were also his father’s last two years. The two were both stationed in San Diego at the same time. His father was a warrant officer, a rank that prior enlisted sailors who had worked their way up through the ranks could qualify for. They are basically technical specialists in a specific area.

“Warrant officers are resident experts in their field of enlisted service, so my dad was a warrant officer bosun, and he was an excellent leader,” Norell said. “If you’re a warrant officer, you have to have been a major force at the very least. I mean, no one is ever going to tell a warrant officer what to do.”

Whether it is a college fraternity house or the deck of a destroyer, crazy antics and rites of passage seem to apply just the same. One tradition is that, once the sailor crosses the equator, they become a “trusty shellback.” The ceremony represents crossing the line to become a son or daughter of Neptune. The “shellbacks” are told to crawl on their hands and knees across the non-skid deck, which is extremely uncomfortable. “You know, it’s sharp. I mean, sandpaper doesn’t hold a candle to it,” he said.

In addition, the decks were slicked with a fluorescent dye, which is used as a marker if a man falls off the ship for some reason. Patches of the dye are tossed overboard and turn the water a bright lime green so it’s easier to spot the missing man.

“They tried to make it look gross. And they had this kiddie pool set up. They had us completely dunked in it and bobbing for oranges and stuff like that, just things to humiliate us,” Norell said. “It’s a lot like hazing. A lot of veterans and my old shipmates, they wouldn’t think anything of it. You know? That’s a culture thing. I would say it’s very much about the culture. … We romanticize a lot of it.”

Impetuous youth, even in the Navy, makes for some memorable lapses in judgment. Like the time Norell reported for duty unquestionably intoxicated.

“I showed up to work drunk one time. I showed up like an hour and a half late,” he recalled. “I was 19 and drinking outside the barracks with a couple of other people on a Monday night. … So Master at Arms Villanueva, a great guy, said ‘We’re gonna give you a breathalyzer when you get on the ship.’ So I just had that working against me.”

In the Navy, Norell explained, there are three disciplinary steps for cases like this. Alleged offenders go before a disciplinary review board. Nine times out of 10, the board sends them to the executive officers’ inquiry, where they decide whether to elevate the case to the captain. Then you have the Captain’s Mast, where the chief executive officer of the ship decides the final judgment and punishment.

“So because of my alcohol-related incident, and drinking underage, the captain awarded me with half a month’s pay and 30 days of restriction,” Norell said. “I could not leave the ship, period, for an entire 30 days. And it was miserable. When I finished my workday from seven to four, I would then have to report back to whoever the duty master at arms was at six o’clock and do another hour of extra disciplinary work. … They always needed the freezers or reefer decks cleaned out or something like that. There was always somebody on restriction.”

Some of the cultural dynamics at work had the familiar feel of sibling rivalry. Norell remembers almost always competing with his older brother.

“We were only 16 months apart and couldn’t be more different. He and I were always competing against each other,” he said. “It would always be me challenging him, like challenging an incumbent, It was like, alright, he won last time, now I have to keep trying to take the belt from him. …

“My brother and I were so very night and day. I think it says a lot about the differentiation between officers and enlisted. He does everything by the book. When he and I were in elementary or middle school, he thought he wanted to be an architect or some type of engineer. And that’s exactly what he is now. He’s a nuclear engineering officer in the Navy. When somebody asked me what I wanted to do as an adult, when I grew up, I said I wanted to drive a garbage truck. Isn’t that a fitting way to describe how the officer is versus the enlisted? I don’t know.”

Many consider one step toward stable adulthood is marriage, and Norell got married at age 21 to a young woman from Slovakia.
“I know there are a lot of fake marriages and mail-order marriages in America, but it was a very real marriage,” Norell said. “A big incentive for young enlisted guys is you get a housing allowance when you get married.”

When Norell was 22, he and his wife moved to her home country of Slovakia. He taught English while she completed her master’s degree. After about a year, Norell decided that it was not how he wanted to live his life. Their parting was amicable. No children and no property to deal with.

“We were together for two years,” he said. “Sometimes when you get married, especially at such a young age like a lot of military people do, you roll the dice and see what you get because you don’t actually know, not at that age.”

Throughout his time in the Navy, Norell accepted the “normalcy” of drinking. He wanted to fit in. He wanted to be tough. It could help blow off steam. And it was fun. Sometimes.

“They say that cigarettes are a gateway drug, or marijuana, or something like that, but I’ve never known anything like alcohol to get people right back on to whatever it was they were addicted to,” he said. “One of my old shipmates is kind of going through some stuff right now and battling with some drug addiction. He’s sober now. He’s in his first year of sobriety.”

Norell said that across the military, from his observation, drinking was just socially acceptable, regardless of how many safety stand-downs enlisted men received. He said some veterans tried to claim disability related to their drinking, saying they didn’t start drinking until they joined the Navy.

“I think that’s very much a stretch,” he said. “Every single veteran needs to ask themselves, what was my role in that?” Norell said. “I smoked cigarettes and drank heavily. I had to do a lot of soul-searching to find out where the blame was placed, and it was on nobody but myself. … I don’t drink anymore. It had caused me a lot of pain in the past.”

Norell’s by-the-book, Naval officer brother was not immune to the struggles of service. When one of his enlisted men hung himself, successfully committing suicide, toward the end of an around-the-world deployment, he went into a downward spiral that included feelings of guilt.

“It certainly left a mark on him, because he was that man’s superior. He was supposed to be looking after him, you know, looking after your sailors and shipmates,” Norell said. “I think he feels regret because he wasn’t able to do that effectively.”
There were many lessons that stayed with Norell long after he got out. Perhaps the most overarching one was the strong brotherhood and sisterhood of the enlisted personnel. While serving, they had been removed from everything they had ever known up until age 18. “When you go in the military, you need to find your second family in life,” he said. Those relationship become strong bonds for many that continue even after they leave active duty.
Norell remembers a time in college when a seasoned Army veteran was in one of his classes. The veteran sat at the back of the classroom but was not shy about speaking up.
“He would just openly talk about some of his past experiences,” he recalled. Some of the stories were not pleasant to hear.
“I thought, wow, this guy’s going through some pain. The other students wondered, what’s up with this nut job? But, you know, that veteran was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. He was talking about it.”

From that vet, Norell realized the importance of sharing those hard experiences, not only as an act of healing but also as a way to possibly help others. He does not remember the vet’s name, and they were never really friends, but his stories really resonated with Norell.

“That was him overcoming that pain and finding a solution to it,” he said. “He was doing the right thing, and that’s communicating with others and sharing experiences. … He was doing it for himself, but I was also able to benefit from it, I think, by proxy.”
Norell found himself doing the same to support fellow veterans. He noted a vast difference between the support vets might receive in the civilian world versus the support of people who served, who truly understand, from people who have “been there.”

“I have always made myself readily available to talk about any and all issues because of the camaraderie that we share. It’s like, yo man, let’s go talk about it, you know. Let’s go grab a cup of coffee or let’s go grab a beer. Let’s go smoke a cigarette over it. Your shipmates are really there for you. But in the civilian world, I had that same type of scenario, and I told a co-worker about something that happened. They’d say, like, ‘Oh, man, that sucks. I gotta go.’ I think it’s difficult for veterans transitioning from military into civilian life to know where to go with a lot of that. Having that support is a huge component to the healing process.”

When Norell decided to get out of the Navy, he had reached a sort of burnout.

“I was just unhappy with what I was doing in the Navy, you know,” he said. “Everybody just kind of gets worn out, and I though, well, it’s an opportunity to go do something different, you know? I still absolutely loved being in the Navy and having those tools and stuff. But I was looking at opportunities such as the post-911 GI Bill. … I joined the reserves because I was kind of keeping one foot in, just in case I ever wanted to be an officer.”

Norell likened getting out of the Navy to navigating a symbolic totem pole. While in the military, “you’re climbing your totem pole. You get higher and higher, bit by bit. When you get out of the military, you’re back to being low man on the totem pole in this new village, and you don’t know where to go or what to do. It’s absolutely a shock.”

He has adjusted well to civilian life and says he still benefits from the discipline and professional environment of the military.
“Work’s crazy. I’m just a sales guy and trying to build the territory,” he said. “I very much like the life that I live now, and I credit a lot of that to the Navy for getting me to this place.”

Norell’s only regret is that he hadn’t taken it all more seriously and been more deliberate about his career while he was serving.

“It was one of the single best decisions I ever made in my life,” he said. “I wish when I was in I had taken it more seriously. I might have been more responsible or been given more responsibilities. I mean, I got out as an E4. In hindsight, if I had taken myself more seriously, I might have created a path in the military for myself. …
“The military reminded me that, you know, there are rules for a reason. There are reasons why we do everything. There are so many teachings that follow you out of the military, like making your bed every single morning. It’s just, it’s autopilot. … But I gained the brotherhood, and most importantly, I gained a path forward.”