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A Veteran in Blue

  • Published
  • By Chris Willis
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Some Airmen get a chance to work doing what they love to do; retired Senior Master Sgt. Robert Stillwell was able to do it for more than four decades.

He joined the Air Force in 1968 during the Vietnam War instead of waiting to be drafted and served as a member of the security police. During his service in Vietnam, Stillwell earned a Bronze Star and Airman's Medal for rescuing two Airmen who were drowning in the South China Sea.

After only three and a half years as a security policeman, Stillwell was given a chance to pursue his childhood dream of being an illustrator.

"I knew my whole life that I wanted to be an illustrator," he said. "When I got the opportunity, I jumped on it."

After cross training, Stillwell was stationed in Colorado Springs, Colorado and worked with a team of civilians who had previously been illustrators and artists for Disney, designers for Hollywood movie posters and one who made sculptures for the Air Force Academy.

"These guys were great artists and they really helped set the tone for my career," he said.

Stillwell also worked for the Air Force orientation group, where he built interactive exhibits and static display aircraft.

"It was one of the most exciting things I got to do; we built all these fantastic exhibits that would travel around the world," he said.

The team spent the majority of the year traveling across the states with the exhibits, and when they weren't traveling, the team was at work making new ones.
Stillwell currently works as a visual information specialist at Malmstrom Air Force Base. 

A few years ago, Stillwell was asked to do drawings of two Medal of Honor recipients to be presented as dedications for buildings named after them.

"After I was done, I made prints and sent it to them and they signed it and sent it back," he said. "That was a rewarding thing I got to do."

Even people from his past still call him and ask if he can do art for them.

"In the past year I've done drawings for the NATO headquarters in Germany, Aviano Air Force Base, Italy, and throughout the U.S.," he said.

Stillwell has also done drawings of all the Malmstrom AFB wing commanders from the very first one to the most current one.

"I pretty much do everything when it comes to illustration or graphics," he said.  "Whenever I get an opportunity to do art, I will, whether it's on or off work."

Stillwell has painted murals at most of the bases he was stationed as well as around the Great Falls area with some as large as 10 feet high.

Stillwell's son, Bobby, also draws and paints and they sometimes like to finish each other's projects.  Together they created a mural in the basement of the 341st Missile Wing headquarters, in honor of security forces Airmen.

"That mural was fun to paint, it turned out a lot different than what we started with but it still tuned out pretty cool," he said with a smile.

Stillwell will retire for the second time in May.

"It was time for me to retire from active duty in 1994 and it's time for me to retire now," he said.  "I have a canvas I bought in college in 1967 that I have traveled around the world with.  Now I'll have time to finally roll it out and do some big paintings."

Stillwell also has some advice for future illustrators and graphic artist.

"You have to love what you do, you have to draw and paint a lot, and keep pursuing education and learning new things," he said. "If you really want something and believe in it, you can accomplish it."

The dedication and passion for his work will continue for years to come. Even after retiring, Stillwell said he will keep doing the drawings wing the commanders.

"It's kind of a neat thing to do, and I always have a lot of fun doing it," he said. "I think it keeps me feeling young, staying busy and interactive with people and my work."