Marine Corps Base Quantico -- Cpl. Jhon Espinal sat gripping a metal pole, his eyes narrowed to slits, his face frozen in a grimace. He could breathe through one nostril only. His eyes, ears, mouth, and entire face were covered with sticky pink putty. His right knee jiggled up and down, up and down, the only part of him that moved.
Espinal wasn’t being tortured — at least, not unwillingly. In fact, when he learned that he was going to be the model for a cast figure in a Vietnam War scene for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, he said he was so happy he almost cried.
“I wanted to do this,” he said. “My former boss, Gunnery Sgt. Gary Porter, is in one of the World War II scenes. I thought it was so cool that he could still be there in 100 years. When I learned that they were going to be casting figures for the new galleries, I told them ‘sign me up, take my money.’”
“I’ve been to Afghanistan, and this is my chance to go to Vietnam,” Espinal said.
Espinal is portraying an ammunition carrier deploying from a UH-34D helicopter into a sandy rice paddy in Vietnam in 1965.
Gwenn Adams, public affairs chief for the museum, said that in the past the museum has held auditions for cast figure models. But for the new scene, the curators and historians looked for modern-day Marines who do the same job as the figures they will be portraying. Espinal, who works at the museum now, was an ammo carrier for several helicopter operations in Afghanistan.
“He knows instinctively how to hold the weapon,” Adams explained.
Because of Espinal’s experience in the role he’s portraying, he was able to suggest a change to make the scene more realistic. In the original concept for the scene, the machine gunner was positioned behind the ammo carrier and the aerial gunner.
“He’s got an M60 machine gun with a tripod that he needs to set up, and we’re supporting him. If he’s behind us, he can’t see where he’s going. He has to be in front so we don’t block him,” Espinal said. The exhibit designers altered the scene based on Espinal’s suggestion.
Espinal drew from his experience in Afghanistan, where he was an advisor to the Afghanistan National Police, and during his recruit training in San Diego to put himself in the right mindset for the role he’s portraying.
“I have had the opportunity to be blasted in the face with sand,” he said. That’s how he knew what kind of face his figure would make.
Creating the molds for the Espinal’s figure was an all-day process. Four employees from Taylor Studios, an Illinois-based exhibit design and fabrication company, first cast his legs, then his torso, then his head and neck, and finally his teeth. For each step, Espinal held his pose for 15-20 minutes.
“I’m completely numb,” he said after the mold of his torso was completed.
For each step, the body part being cast was covered first in alginate, a water-based modeling compound, and then in strips of plaster of Paris. When the alginate got warm, it would start to steam. The molds were so detailed that they captured an imprint of Espinal’s chest tattoo, the Japanese symbol for friendship, and a vein in his forehead.
To prepare for casting Espinal’s head, Taylor employee Marc Dams glued a bald cap to Espinal’s head using prozade glue, an adhesive that was developed in the 1940s for attaching prosthetics to World War II veteran’s faces. He applied Vaseline to Espinal’s eyebrows so that they would not stick to the alginate.
“I’ve never torn an entire eyebrow off yet,” Dams said. “Just part of one!”
“It feels weird,” Espinal said of the bald cap. “Like if I move my eyebrows my whole brain moves.”
Dams gave Espinal ear plugs and positioned him in a chair. Since his eyes and mouth would be covered, he was to make hand movements if he started to panic.
“Some people don’t know they’re claustrophobic until they do this,” Dams said.
His colleague, Curt Walker, said a kid once vomited while having his head cast.
“You’ve got to reach a state of being able to calm yourself down when you’re in there,” Walker said. “Luckily, Marines seem to be really good at doing that.”
Espinal made the sign of the cross before the Taylor employees started slathering on the alginate, but in the end, he said the experience was “not bad at all.” While in the sensory deprivation chamber created by the alginate and plaster on his face, he distracted himself by thinking about how, a few months from now, he’ll be able to bring his 18-month-old son to see his dad in the museum.
Once the cast was made, Taylor employees removed it from Espinal by cutting it off with a butter knife. They then applied polyester resin to the interior, which will dry and harden, forming the positive from the mold’s negative.
Back in Illinois, the Taylor employees will put the pieces of the figure together, hide the seams, and fill the cavity with foam. They’ll paint the figures, dress them, sculpt their hair, and put in glass eyes.
Each mannequin takes about 100 hours to complete, Walker estimated. There are eight figures in Espinal’s scene.
The completed figures are due back at the museum in mid-January. The museum will be closed from Jan. 1 until March 31, 2016, for construction of new exhibits.
Visitors will be able to see the Vietnam War scene and many others once the museum re-opens.
“If something ever happens to me, my son will be able to visit me there for years to come,” Espinal said.
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