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Print project helps tell veteran’s story

Slides and photos helped B-J Mushet-Norman create an image for a Veterans Print Project woodblock print. The image tells a story about Ben Norman’s service as a Marine attack pilot. (Photos by Ruth Nerhaugen)

Many people will look at B-J Mushet-Norman’s print showing her husband Ben in his A-6 Intruder and see a well-crafted, striking image of a military pilot.

To the couple, it represents much more.

The image tells Ben Norman’s story.

Mushet-Norman is creating the woodcut as part of the Minnesota Veterans Art Experience, a multifaceted project being undertaken by the Red Wing Arts Association.

For the Veteran Print Project, nearly two dozen veterans are being matched with print artists who will listen to their stories about military service and create images that are “Pict-Oral” histories of those individuals.

The public will get a chance to see the results in an exhibition in May at the Depot Gallery.

Earlier this spring RWAA Director Dan Guida called Norman, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who lives in Welch, and invited him to participate in the project.

Not only did Norman say yes, but he also pointed out that his wife has print experience and could do the job. He felt her deep understanding of his Vietnam War experiences would enhance the collaboration.

Mushet-Norman is best known locally for her portraits, but she did printmaking in college and still had all the essential equipment.

She also saw the advantage of being the one to tell her husband’s story in a print. “I’ve been there,” she said. “I know what we shared.”

B-J and Ben have known each other since high school days in Maryland. They graduated from college a week apart in 1968 and got married a month later.

Norman had entered a Marine officer candidate program at the University of Maryland as a student so he could be guaranteed an opportunity to attend flight school after graduation instead of being drafted.

Mushet-Norman graduated in art from Virginia Comonwealth University in Richmond, Va.

The couple moved to Pensacola, Fla., for his flight training and started a family. Daughter Julie was a toddler when he got orders to go overseas in spring of 1972.

Initially he was sent to Japan, Norman said. The ground war in Vietnam was supposedly over. But just weeks later the North Vietnamese made a major push into South Vietnam, and the 1st Marine Air Wing got new orders.

The Marines created their own base at Nam Phong, Thailand, and flew sorties out of there.

First mission

The image Mushet-Norman is capturing in her print shows Norman in the cockpit of his Intruder with two other aircraft visible in the sky nearby.

“That image, to me, sums up my feelings at the time,” Norman said. “This kind of represents the first mission I launched on to drop bombs on the enemy in Vietnam.”

One of the reasons he headed for college and pursued being a pilot was to avoid being drafted and having no choice about how he would serve.

“I thought surely this war is going to be over by then. But it wasn’t,” he said. “I remember thinking, time ran out. I’m not supposed to be here, but here I am.”

Norman flew missions as an attack pilot for over a year before returning to his family.

The couple had a son, Kristoffer, in 1973, and left the military in 1975. He stayed in the Marine Reserves until 1978, when he was hired by Braniff Airlines as a pilot; they moved to Welch in 1979. Mushet-Norman had continued her work as an artist, including a painting of Pensacola’s first seaplane trainer that hangs in the Naval Aviation Museum there.

When she approached the print project, Mushet-Norman was drawn to a snapshot taken by the bombardier-navigator showing her husband in the cockpit, with his mask off to the side.

“To me, it just summed up him flying,” she said, adding, “With any art project, I have to immerse myself in the subject,” so she got out cassette recordings Norman had sent home, books, and all the slides she could find from the time period.

“It brought back a lot of memories,” Mushet-Norman said. They worked collaboratively. “I wanted it to resonate with him because it’s his story,” she said.

They added two more aircraft that were pictured in other slides Norman brought home — including one with a bomb on which someone had painted “Margie.”

“I hadn’t thought about this stuff for many years,” Norman said. “But it’s the same stuff our troops are going through right now, today. It has been one war after another in America. The periods of peace are brief interludes between conflicts.”

Norman, who retired from Delta Airlines in May of 2010, limits his flying nowadays to the Minnesota Soaring Club. He feels honored that he is able to tell his military story through the image.

For Mushet-Norman, too, the project is an opportunity to honor all military men and women for their service.

“If young vets could see that they’re not alone — they’re just the latest generation to have gone through this,” Norman said, it’s a good and valuable project.

“The experience of combat is probably one of the most traumatic things that human beings inflict on each other,” he said. Soldiers don’t become heroes for the glory, he added. “It’s for the rest of the guys who are fighting for their lives. …

“But if you’ve never been in the military, in combat, you can’t explain those things to people. This could help people understand.”