AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates --
Depending on which Airman, Soldier, or Marine you ask, the Phantom Compound — which houses more than 1,500 United States service members — can be many things. At its surface, it is where military members assigned to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, work, eat, and sleep. It’s where deployers hone new skills and teach the next generation. It’s a place to forge friendships and learn new cultures. For some, ADAB provides just enough down time to find a new passion or reignite an old one. One thing the Phantom Compound is not, however, is colorful. Gray stones line its beige walkways. Once black asphalt roads are now muted by copper colored sands carried by the prevailing northwest winds of the Arabian Gulf. In place of vegetation, painted fences or eye-catching window displays that many Airmen are used to seeing back in the States, as well as steel-reinforced concrete blast-walls take their place. T-walls, also known as Bremer walls, can stand as tall as 20-feet and are standardly as blank as the military compounds they inhabit. Where some may look out and see nothing, others like U.S. Army Sgt. Anthony Castillo, a mobility specialist assigned to Bravo Battery, 3-157th Field Artillery Regiment and Colorado National Guardsmen, sees a blank canvas. During his 10-month deployment Castillo made it his goal to seek out new canvases to honor those who have served at ADAB.
On January 6, 2022, Castillo first arrived at ADAB and began overseeing and coordinating all passenger and vehicle movements of his unit, coming to and from the Phantom Compound. It wasn’t until he and the 3-157th FAR were included in a joint training exercise with a host nation unit, that Castillo received his first itch for art in the AOR (area of responsibility).
“My paintings began prior to a joint training exercise with the 79th Emirate High Rocket Regiment,'' said Castillo. “We got together to brainstorm a gift exchange idea and I volunteered to paint a HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) on a canvas as a gift. The painting consisted of a HIMARS shooting a rocket on a nocturnal skyline, with both of 3-157th FAR and the 79th EHRR crest painted at the top, symbolizing unity. The canvas painting was a success, and our host nation partners loved the painting.”
Castillo continued to scratch that itch by painting rocket pod covers, a piece of debris that separates from munitions after they are fired, with the logo of the 3-157th FAR crest for the visiting Adjutant General of Colorado, Brig. Gen. Laura Clellan.
“The pod cover is unique because it is what seals the rockets in the pods that are on our HIMARS,” said Castillo. “It’s a little piece of history.”
It wasn’t until the end of March 2022, that Castillo found the medium which would become his new staple – cement barricades and T-walls. After the 3-157th FAR adopted the depiction of a banshee – a supernatural being in Celtic folklore whose mournful wailing was believed to foretell death – Castillo knew what to paint next.
“The Banshee logo was created by a prior enlisted Guardsmen and is used by the battery to signify who they are,” said Castillo. “The design is very creative and complex. It was something I was very curious about – to put my skill to the test. The location of the wall was important. I wanted it to be seen in a heavy trafficked area of Camp Phantom. When I began the painting, I used a pie chart method to sketch the design onto the concrete barrier. I had to use an oil-based permanent marker to ensure the sketch would stay and I couldn't paint during the day because the temperatures were very high, and I would begin to get fatigued.”
To avoid temperatures of 120 F or more, Castillo would gather his painting supplies, don a headlamp and begin painting at night, around 9:00 p.m. Painting for three to four hours, Castillo worked night after night on the regiment’s design.
“When I began to use colored acrylic paint to fill in the design, that’s when I started to receive comments and encouragement from higher ranking individuals,'' said Castillo. “It was then I realized that most of these higher ranks were living in the quarters next to the barrier.”
“The Banshee Barricade” took a total of 33 hours over the span of 20 days to finish.
Castillo said, “Once I completed the wall, I absolutely had no intention of painting any more barriers.”
That notion was short-lived.
Maj. Chaola Simmons, a mental health practitioner assigned to the then 380th Expeditionary Medical Group and current 380th Expeditionary Medical Squadron, approached Castillo looking for someone to paint two entrance barriers in front of the clinic. After discussing the concepts and being provided the necessary painting supplies, it didn’t take much convincing for Castillo to begin his next work. Within 24 hours of completing his initial piece, Castillo set out into the night to begin painting “The Phantom Medic'' mural, which incorporates F-22 Raptor silhouettes – signifying their frequent appearances in Al Dhafra’s skies after the missile attack on January 17, 2022.
“I completed the first T-Wall after 4 days – 16 hours total,” said Castillo. “I began medical’s second wall shortly after and completed that one within a few days as well, totaling in at 36 hours. Both walls were freehanded. I used scotch tape to acquire precise measurements and straightness of the letters.
Castillo was publicly recognized for his achievement and service to the 380th EMDG by its former commander, Col. Brian Neese. Neese said the possibilities to paint these walls were always put on hold for the lack of artistic ability by anyone who wanted it completed, and was thankful Castillo was the person to fulfill those possibilities.
From then on, Castillo became the 380th’s go-to man for anything that required a bit of creativity, a smooth and steady hand, or skill with a paint brush.
“I quickly began to acquire multiple artistic requests from different folks all over Phantom,” said Castillo. “I was sure to be busy until the end of my rotation. From photo drawings of family members and pets, to awards and shadow box presentations, to assisting the medical squadron in a phantom medical stencil to be applied all over Camp Phantom. Although very busy in my personal time, I made sure I placed the mission first and never failed to complete a task or deadline.”
And yet requests kept pouring in.
But before making a dent in an ever growing request list, there was one design Castillo wanted to do for himself. Or rather in memory for his mentor and friend, Sergeant First Class Isaac Juan Bernal, a fellow Airborne qualified Colorado Guardsmen assigned to the 5/19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), who passed away on December 31, 2020.
Castillo said, “Bernal would joke and laugh saying I was going to be utilized to paint on jersey barriers – needless to say, he was right. Airborne is a significant staple in my military career, originating from 5/19th Special Forces Group. Airborne has a community of camaraderie – of brotherhood – and I have been lucky to have been mentored by a few of them. I created this memorial and wall that anyone who fits the criteria of Airborne, is welcome to sign. They can leave a piece of accomplishment at Camp Phantom. The T-Wall’s design is based on a late 1950s model AC-130 with airborne parachutes all around. It was painted freehand and took a total of 20 hours.”
With the memory of his mentor and those who share the title of Army Airborne honored in literal concrete, Castillo continued to provide others, legacies of their own: a T-wall incorporating the Colorado state flag, representing the Colorado National Guard’s 188th Fighting Support Company, also known as “The Fighting Phantoms;” the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing crest in the Windy’s” Dining Facility; two 3-157th FAR murals, the first representing the painting given after the joint training exercise with the 79th EHRR and the second a clean design using bright and bold colors; the shield designs for the 380th “A” Staff And Special Staff; T-Wall advocating for mental health and awareness; and a 16-foot T-Wall request from the explosive ordnance disposal flight.
The request from EOD came in June after Castillo befriended Staff Sgt. Ruiz Ayala, an EOD technician assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, during a combatives training course. After expressing interest in his skill and style, he inquired about Castillo’s ability to paint just one more.
“I never confirmed or denied,” said Castillo. “The length of time to complete a 16-foot T-wall was somewhat discouraging, and I never got back to Ayala.”
That was until the EOD flight discovered a seemingly long lost memorial wall dedicated to Tech. Sgt. Anthony C. Campbell, an EOD technician who died from wounds sustained by the detonation of an improvised explosive device in December of 2015. After hearing of its discovery, Castillo made it a point to add a little more paint to his palette.
“The wall lost a lot of its paint and design,” said Castillo. “With memorial walls being important to me, I took two days to repaint and finish EOD’s memorial T-Wall that now sits just outside their gates.”
With contact to the base’s “bomb squad” re-established, the end of his deployment drawing nearer and being one T-Wall away from a total of 10; Castillo agreed to take on the 16-foot goliath, EOD had originally asked for.
Knowing how large the design would be, Castillo decided to pursue a simplified symmetrical design which implements a handful of desert-schemed colors. The mural features the 380th EOD’s personalized logo; an Arabian Oryx skull (the UAE national animal) combined with the EOD occupational badge – also known as the “Crab.”
“The wall was tall, and a ladder had to be used to paint the base and outline,” said Castillo. “I used a graph-style formula to map my design onto the wall and keep it proportionally accurate. At its base, I had a foot of wall come out and was going to be the catch for any splatter -- which I didn't want. I did not allow for any mistakes, and I accomplished that. One of the more difficult things to paint is symmetrical curves and shapes. This had to be done twice with the horns and the wreath, but at this point I was not hesitant to freehand anything.”
With his tenth and final T-wall complete, Castillo spent the rest of his deployment touching up a few walls from other artists that also saw the dense concrete structures as canvases. He also was recognized by the 380th AEW Deputy Commander, Col. Brian T. Hobbins, for his service to the wing.
“Thank you for your support to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing,” Hobbins said to Castillo. “We are appreciative to you for using your artistic talents to help us ensure future joint warfighters recognize the heritage and history of their respective units. You have fully embraced the Army Core Values of 'Selfless Service'. The basic building blocks of selfless service is the commitment to go a little further, endure a little longer, and look a little closer to see how one can add to the effort of making a place better than they found it. By painting T-walls by head lamp in the hours of darkness you have indeed made it better. You have gone above and beyond without thought of gain or recognition. Your actions exemplify the Air Force Core Values of ‘Service Before Self’.”
Castillo’s belief is that humans are all inherently creative. Within each and every person there is an artistic soul waiting to be let out – waiting to be fed. It doesn't matter if someone starts by slinging clay in a pottery class or if they experiment with play-dough with their kids. What can start as ball point pen doodles on a piece of scratch paper can steadily morph into a new found skill and hobby. The magic of art isn’t the idea of transmuting something out of seemingly nothing. Rather, art’s magic lies in the individual. It lies in their choice to pick up their brush again and again for the sole purpose of feeding their creativity despite their skill, their mistakes, or their environment. The power behind art is you.