The 529th Regimental Support Company Motor Pool Paint Shop on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall is unique to the entire Army. “It’s the only paint shop in the entire Army run by Soldiers,” said CW4 Charles Blake, the company’s regimental maintenance officer.
Specialists Allen Thomas and Demarquis Mendenhall cross-trained to the unique job of running the Army’s only paint shop.
Thomas, who has been in the Army nine years, had pre-service experience with his craft. “We used to paint our own vehicles [at home],” he said. Although he completed advanced individual training as a metal worker [now the Army specialty is Allied Trade Specialist], Thomas said “I’ve been with The Old Guard for three years, painting since I arrived here and honestly love what I do.”
His training as a metal worker taught him to do body work, but no painting. “I attended a school at the University of Iowa to learn how to apply infrared paint we use on the Army’s Humvee [High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle], but no formal schools,” said Thomas. “During my school training, they measured the thickness of the [infrared] paint with an ultrasound device. The thickness of this type of paint has to be just right.”
Also with a bit of training from a commercial paint representative, Thomas said he’s mostly been self-taught with hands-on training.
Mendenhall, a generator mechanic Soldier of three years, cross-trained to paint specialist after being assigned to the Motor Pool. “I like the work and most enjoy that we’re able to do our own thing here. No one comes in and bothers us,” he said.
“A lot of the guys working in the motor pool don’t realize everything we’re doing back here,” added Thomas. “We literally have to wait for the paint to dry on whatever we’re painting. If you push something faster than the time it actually takes, you end up having paint running and create more work.”
Both Soldiers work separately and together on projects, from prep work in the shop’s prep area, often inside a tented space used for sandblasting. “We use both plastic and glass media for sandblasting,” said Thomas as he pointed out a large bin filled with plastic material which looks similar to shredded credit cards and a container of glass media which resembles small glass BB bullets. The media is shot through an air gun. “Media blasting works well when something is rusted,” said Thomas. “We can get down to bare metal, so we can see what we’re working on. I’m using plastic media instead of glass on the caisson. Otherwise, I’d shoot a hole through it.”
Prior to blasting the limber [a two-wheeled cart designed to support the trail of an artillery piece for a caisson] Thomas is working on, he stripped the parts and pieces necessary before the media was applied. After surrounding the limber set up on jack stands inside the tent, he will media-blast the piece then spray it with compressed air, removing any dust before doing body work if needed, prior to painting the limber.
Walking past welding rods and safety equipment — from welding and other respiratory helmets, rods, compressed air guns, paint and other prep supplies—the Soldiers stopped en route to the paint bay to open a can of infrared paint Mendenhall will use to paint a Humvee.
The paint is purple on the surface. “That’s the infrared material in the paint,” Thomas explained. Once Mendenhall mixed the paint, it turned a solid woodland green color.
The Army has made the switch to environmentally-friendly products, so the infrared paint is water-based,” Thomas explained. “We use a catalyst [agent to help set the paint] when we mix it, following certain ratios for each vehicle we paint. For example, the humvee uses eight parts paint, four parts catalyst and two parts water.”
Back in the paint bay, Mendenhall explained the process of painting the vehicle. “I prepped the Humvee, taping off the mirrors and everything I won’t be painting, and then applied the tan-colored base coat of paint,” he said. After the first coat dries, the Soldier said, “I’ll draw out the camouflage pattern then paint the remaining colors — black, green and brown.”
The vented paint bay is constructed to filter out paint fumes and also is climate-controlled. “The temperature really heats up in here,” said Mendenhall. “In the winter we can set [the heat] for a constant temperature so whatever we paint will dry properly.”
Thomas also explained a big factor in paint work is humidity. “It prevents drying time, so we’ll kick up the temperature higher on more humid days, so we have a controlled climate and it helps with proper drying of paint.”
Safety is an important part of the job these Soldiers perform. “We must maintain Army safety standards and work with the safety office on base,” Thomas said. “Some of the work we do is very dangerous. One of the paint primers contains zinc, which is bad for you, so we have to be careful in what we do.”
Mendenhall said the most unusual item he’s painted for the Army is the gun he recently painted for The Old Guard [Presidential Salute Battery]. “It was my first time painting one,” he said. For Thomas, the most unusual items to paint have been caskets.
“Most people don’t realize the Caisson Platoon uses a casket for a cremation at Arlington National Cemetery. Caskets are not constructed with the drawer the caisson uses to hold the urn containing the cremated remains,” said Thomas. “After the metal work is complete, they’ll send the casket to us for painting. We use a high gloss [automotive] paint to restore the caskets — the best paint I can get my hands on. It’s what they call a piano finish.”
Thomas is most proud of the metal rail he designed to go around the casket. “We welded it to the casket to protect the casket from being beaten up.”
Thomas enjoys the history behind the items he paints. In addition to getting a taste of restoration work at historic JBM-HH, Thomas said he also did some restoration work while stationed at Fort Riley. “I completely stripped down a 29 Weasel World War II tracked vehicle. I also did a M8 Greyhound [light armored car].”
His goal when he ends his career in the Army is to do restoration work. “I’d love to work at the Army ordnance museum at Fort Lee, Va.,” he said.
“If it’s tactical and in the Army we can paint it,” said Thomas.