“I’m Haitian,” U.S. Navy Veteran Darrel Charles proudly states. “On our coat of arms is ‘L’Union Fait La Force,’ and that means ‘with unity there’s strength.’ It’s a thing that we’re so adamant about, connecting and freeing ourselves because Haiti was the first nation to be free. It’s in our DNA. I think support is a big thing. That’s what I learned in the military. They call it a fleet in the Navy. You see a carrier ship but then you see four or five other ships supporting that one ship. You need support.”
Miami-based graphic designer Brittany Ballinger sits across the bistro table from him. In the background there’s a loud clanking as the barista in the Wolfsonian Design Store + Coffee Bar is setting up the register for the day, counting each coin before it drops into the drawer.
“But I also think the military is a place where you can be stripped of your individuality and creativity,” Darrel continues. “When you get into the field you’re like, ‘OK. How do I express it? But you don’t really have that kind of supportive environment to express it.”
Originally from Elizabeth, New Jersey, Darrel moved to West Palm, Florida, with his parents in 2004. Wanting to attend a historically black college and university (HBCU) after graduating high school in 2006, his goals were unfortunately met with discouragement from his family who reminded him that he didn’t have the grades for an in-state school. Thus, Darrel felt that college wasn’t an option.
“I wanted to travel, meet people, and not be on the front line so the Navy was the best source for me,” Darrel shares with Brittany.
She quickly jots down notes while listening, making sure to look up and maintain eye-contact as she does.
“I was in administration,” Darrel continues. “Initially, I asked the recruiter what his job was and he was like, ‘Oh, I’m a PS. We get to meet people and stuff,’ so I was like, ‘Alright, I want to do that.’”
PS stands for Personnel Specialist. He explains it’s like Human Resources of the Navy.
“You’re the first and last person everyone sees. I was stationed in Norfolk, VA. When we did our tour we did the Atlantic tour on the USS Theodore Roosevelt 71.”
“Traveling to these different places, how did it change your perspective of the US?” Brittany asks. “You’re a part of the military, in essence, you’re in a very American setting but you’re viewing other countries.”
“When I went to different countries, I never ate anything that reminded me of the U.S., I wanted to experience the culture within itself. South Africa was a beautiful place. I went to Dubai. We actually went there multiple times. I like hip-hop and I like music. That’s the foundation of my growth because my dad was a DJ. It was so dope because I realized foreigners love and appreciate hip-hop. It is on a global level.”
Darrel goes on to share an amazing experience he had on a desert safari in the sand dunes of Dubai, cruising in a Pathfinder with the driver blasting hip-hop. He laughs recalling how surprised he was when 50 Cent came on.
“It sounds like it was a lot of fun,” Brittany responds with a hint of amazement. “Was it always like that? Or were there a lot of boring tedious days where it felt like you’re stuck on a boat?”
“Yeah. You’ve got 27 days of boringness and from Monday to Sunday you have over 50 hours of work. Then you have three to four days in port and that’s when you get to go out and explore.”
“How many countries did you visit?” Brittany asks.
“Three,” Darrel answers. “Because we were on the carrier, we weren’t able to go into port much.”
“Because with the Navy is there a limit to how far you can go in?” she asks inquisitively.
“On a carrier because it’s a nuclear war ship,” he says.
“Oh. See, I don’t really know. I know hardly anything about any military equipment,” Brittany states.
“It’s the big ship with the jets that go off it,” Darrel describes. He takes out his phone out of his pocket to search for a photo of the USS Theodore Roosevelt 71 to show her.
“How many people were on the ship?” she asks, looking at the image on his phone.
“3,200,” he says.
“That’s like a small city,” she quickly responds.
“That’s why I liked the Navy. When I saw their performance and how everyone was moving together, it reminded me of the saying ‘strength in unity,’” he says referring back to Haiti’s coat of arms.
Although Darrel was part of that small community when in the Navy, he felt as though he was on the outside looking in due to his position as a Personnel Specialist.
“I witnessed a lot of psychological effects the Navy can have because of working in that field. We dealt with individuals on a day-to-day basis and what I heard mostly from a lot of sailors was that they just want to take care of their families. No one really wanted to fight the war to be honest. Like at their core, they weren’t fighters but they sacrificed a lot. Their life, their identity, their creativity, everything about who they originally were just to make a better opportunity for themselves and their family,” Darrel explains. “You’re dealing with papers all day and other people’s problems so it was like your problems didn’t exist.”
It was that loss of individuality that affected Darrel the most while serving. Both sensitive and creative, Darrel not only inherited the the emotions and tribulations of his fellow sailors but he also felt as though he had no creative outlet to relinquish that tension. Sensing that something was missing, he began pursuing photography thanks to the gift of a Nikon camera from his supervisor. Yet, it wouldn’t be until years later when, after transitioning back into civilian life and attending Miami’s art institute to study film and photography that Darrel would finally scratch that creative itch. Before then were some highs and lows he had to face.
The highest of the highs was having three beautiful children, one girl and two boys. Having an interest in holistic and natural health thanks to his grandmother Genia Charles who had her own farm and business in Haiti before emigrating to the United States, Darrel felt strongly about natural births for his kids.
“My third son, I actually delivered him in the middle of the living room. There I was on the phone with the midwife being like, ‘Uh, ok?!’” he describes laughing with his hands out with his palms up, replaying the confusion he must have felt. “But it was an amazing experience to see life being created.” He sets his hands down and nods in satisfaction.
The lowest of the lows was Darrel’s experience with homelessness.
“I was a homeless Veteran. I went from a place where you have your own car and you’re doing well to then not having anything. I never thought I’d be there. If you would have told me ten years ago that I was going to be homeless, I would have been like ‘Yeah, right.’”
[HAS HEART] was introduced to Darrel through Operation Sacred Trust (OST), an organization that, since 2011, “has led the way preventing and ending homelessness for Veteran families in Broward and Miami-Dade County,” helping reduce homelessness in the area by nearly 50%.
“OST took a liking to me and I started working there. They gave me opportunities to work with and actually help Veterans. Before, I had gone through a period where for a year-and-a-half, I was in a transient state. I was living with family but I felt like the black sheep. I’m more of a creative so we didn’t see eye-to-eye in many situations. I still love them but at the end of the day I had to value myself. I had to learn more about myself and homelessness was a part of it.”
After years of influence from the military and his family, Darrel was finally claiming his individuality, his personal freedom.
“I later linked up with OST. Their name was something that captivated me because I think about spirituality, healing, and sacredness. That was what always kept me going. The people there were so welcoming. It was a peaceful place for me to get back into society. I started working on my business plan, my cards, getting back into what I originally planned to do which was to work with photography and music. I went to school for massage therapy and I wanted to incorporate them into one because there’s a synergy between all three.”
You could hear the passion and confidence in Darrel’s voice. It has the same excitement as someone sharing good news. Having previously studied film, photography, and massage therapy, Darrel is now studying audio engineering.
“I want to study how music and light are healing when you combine them together,” he states. “I want to do a documentary. I’d get to meet people and learn their perspective on it all.”
At this point we were nearing the end of the first day. From the various conversations Brittany and Darrel had about service, unity, culture, healing, and individuality, there was much inspiration to pull from. Yet, there was one thing in particular that seemed rooted to all themes being discussed from Darrel’s experiences: the Haitian flag.
“Do you always have it with you?” Brittany asked as Darrel reached in his pocket, slowly pulling out the faded and worn flag.
“Always. As you can see, I’ve been everywhere with it,” he says as he looks down, his hands touching the corners of the fabric.
“What message would you want to share with active service members?” she asked Darrel.
“That it’s ok to open up and be a little gentle. You have to have a gentle strength,” he answered.
“I agree with that,” she responded. “I think vulnerability is a strength and I think being able to bare your soul takes courage. A lot of people are scared to do that.”
She went onto the next question.
“What message would you want to share with fellow Veterans?”
“I think it’s the same message because working with OST, I’ve seen a lot of homeless Veterans and they have a hard time sharing,” he replied.
“And what message do you want to share with civilians?” she asks.
“I guess learn a little bit more about the military and to be open to dialogue.”
“So, maybe be more open across the board,” she thinks aloud, noticing the trend.
“I think it needs to be a dialogue on both ends,” Darrel continues. “There are people who are scared or don’t want to ask and there are Veterans who are scared to tell. Like right now it’s hard for me to say stuff but I want to. I need to because it’s healing for me. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of Veterans that want to share but they don’t know how.”
“I feel like getting uncomfortable is the first step,” Brittany adds.
“Getting out of your comfort zone and I think that comfort zone for a Veteran is being closed,” Darrel states.
The pair linger on the effects of acceptance and vulnerability.
“There’s this thing,” Darrel says as he searches something on his phone. “It’s a Japanese technique called kintsugi. It’s where they take broken pottery and repair them with gold lacquer.”
At this point I have pulled it up on my computer and read a description from the Kintsugi Wikipedia page, “As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.”
“For me, the whole experience of being in the military was getting stripped and broken down. I had to bite my tongue a lot. And then I would be on the bridge during my watches and I would see bombs on the jets. First, I was on the hangar base. That’s where they transport all of the jets and missiles and I would see these guys write their marks on the missiles. I saw one with shark teeth and another said ‘here you go, baby,’ like stuff like that. Although we were way out to sea, I would see these jets go off with missiles and I’d see them come back without them and then you’d see on the news the impact it was having. I was like, ‘Oh, shit. I’m indirectly supporting this.’ Whether people like to believe it or not, whether you’re on the field or not, you’re investing in that type of situation. But I was never for it.”
You could hear the conflict in Darrel’s voice. At the same time, you could also hear the relief.
“I was absorbing a lot and being a creative, you take certain things and try to make it your own. You know, add positivity. The way I would do that was taking my uniform and having the sharpest crease, making sure it was nice and starch. I was trying to have that balance of trying to be creative in my way and their way as well.”
But now no longer in the military, Darrel didn’t have to express himself by making sure his crease was folded and ironed to perfection. He was finally feeling free to share what he thought with others.
“A lot of people who would hear this conversation they would say, ‘Oh, man. This is a negative conversation about the military,’ but in actuality, we’re just walking through it. Simple as that. That’s what happened, you know,” he says plainly. “Maybe what I’m doing now is just putting pieces back together but in gold.”
We continued to discuss on the inspiration of the Haitian flag and kintsugi, all agreeing that they accurately symbolized Darrel’s appreciation of unity and healing practices. Yet, it still felt like there was something missing that represented Darrel’s long journey of claiming his creativity and individuality.
Recalling Brittany’s graphic design work with geometric and simple shapes, Tyler brings up dazzle camouflage, a form of camouflage used in WWI and WWII that utilized patterns, geometric shapes, and colors to draw attention to the ship instead of hiding it. It was a technique was created to make it difficult to guess a ship’s speed, distance, and direction. Even more interesting, each ship had its own unique pattern so that the enemy wouldn’t be able to guess the type and class of ship it was.
Pulling up a Google Image search on her laptop of dazzle camouflage, Brittany begins saving images she likes. We all agree, while the technique was used primary in WWI, it can still act as a nod to his experience of having served on a ship.
“I do find this project really challenging,” Brittany states while gathering inspiration online. “Whenever I’ve designed something, it’s been really lighthearted or for an event. I want to honor your story.”
“Definitely bring light in,” Darrel says to her.
“I do want there to be a lightness and an openness,” she agrees, “but there is a challenge there.”
I think we all understood what she was referring to. We had talked about confusion, loneliness, homelessness, and feeling broken. Yet, we’d also discussed acceptance, vulnerability, support, and the growth that comes from all of that. How exactly to portray that, none of us were quite sure.
The pair, understandably, didn’t finish the design during the two Florida state project days. One day, weeks after we left Florida, we received the finalized design from Brittany. I didn’t know what to expect as I waited for the file to download. We had talked about so many ways to combine the various aspects from Darrel’s experience.
Eventually, the design, titled “L’Union,” popped up on my screen. Surrounded by a warm and peaceful pale-pink, the black silhouette of the Haitian coat of arms was displayed. Representing strength, the palm tree stood tall in the center of the design, wearing the cap of liberty. While representing Darrel’s pride in his Haitian heritage, it also symbolizes his long journey to claim his individuality and freedom to express himself creatively.
In dazzle camouflage, the six flags are topped with a tropical flower. Representing not only Darrel’s time in the Navy, the flags proudly share his story of growth and healing.
Ultimately, Brittany and Darrel added a touch of gold to the design to highlight the beauty in imperfection just as the art of Kintsugi does, hoping to translate the inner peace found through acceptance and vulnerability.
The foundation of the design is a ribbon stating, “Strength in Unity,” a similar translation of Haiti’s coat of arms’ motto, “L’Union Fait La Force.” Although it technically translates to “Unity Makes Strength,” their translation represents Darrel’s personal appreciation and value of support.
For now, Darrel’s focusing on continuing to be an active father to his children and finishing school. Eventually, he’ll make a documentary.
“What do you need in order to accomplish your goals?” Brittany asks him. She always asks the right questions.
“A lot of faith, a lot of passion, a lot of truth within myself. Realizing what I can and cant do and what I’m willing to do. That’s what I need. And then a supportive group of individuals,” he responded with.
We’re all cheering you on, Darrel.
[WRITTEN BY: TYLER WAY | PHOTOS BY: TYLER WAY]