Jeff Sornig spent twenty-three years serving in the United States Marine Corps, deploying multiple times, and eventually achieving the rank of Master Sergeant before retiring. I had the honor of serving alongside Jeff, whose unit was located right across the street from my own, and seeing firsthand the pride he carried with his service, and the admiration the Marines serving under him had for their Admin Chief.
When Jeff retired, I assumed that he, like so many other Marines that excel in support specialties, would land himself a cushy GS position, working for the federal government in a similar capacity to that he mastered while in uniform. It’s a great career path for those suited to it, and Jeff’s storied history as a model Marine could certainly lend itself to a great Federal resume. Little did I know, however, in the years I worked down the street from Jeff (and alongside his incredible wife, the now retired Chief Warrant Officer Heather Sornig) that his real passion wasn’t in government service; it was art.
Marines tend not to advertise their artistic sides too often. Whenever I’d stroll through Jeff’s building, I’d offer him the appropriate greeting of the day, “Good afternoon, Master Sergeant,” and he’d glance up from his desk with the classic SNCO (Staff Non-Commissioned Officer) “You’d better not be here to waste my time” look that must become second nature right around the time you pin a second or third rocker to your collar. He was always polite, professional, and even intimidating – like most Master Sergeants, he got there because he was good at what he did and was a consummate professional.
So just imagine my surprise when I learned that Retired Master Sergeant Sornig had run off to California to start working as a cartoonist for every kid’s favorite channel: Nickelodeon.
“I was doing what most transitioning Marines do which is find a way to roll your military experience into a civilian equivalent. I really was not thrilled about doing a Human Resources type job, but what else does 23 years of Marine Corps administration qualify you for? I just had no passion to continue in that line of work,” Jeff told me when I got a hold of him earlier this week.
“My wife is also retired from the Marine Corps, and she encouraged me to pick up drawing again to clear my head. I dusted off the old sketchbooks and pencils and gave it another shot. During that time, I met some terrific friends where we live in the Detroit area, who are outstanding artists and they encouraged me to keep drawing. Now with the proper motivation and support, the direction of my second career started coming into focus. I had the Post 9/11 GI Bill and knew I was going to enroll in college, so I decided to toss the dice and pursue a degree in Illustration. It was gamble for sure, but one I was willing to take for the sake of my sanity.”
Jeff began posting pictures of his artwork on his social media accounts, quickly garnering quite a bit of attention from many of us who were amazed at his ability to recreate characters we’ve seen so often on television. Often, the drawings he posted were of early 90’s Nicktoons (cartoons from Nickelodeon) – hitting all the right buttons in my thirty-something brain to instill a nostalgic sense of glee to coincide with my awe at his artistic talents.
“I was cruising along with my college studies basically planning for a life as a freelance artist in Detroit when I discovered the Nickelodeon Animation Studio Internship program surfing the web one day and it instantly called to me. Here I was, 45 years old, 2,300 miles away from where the major U.S. based TV animation studios reside, but had this obsessive desire to be part of it. I submitted my application and about a month later, after a few video teleconference interviews, I got accepted for a Nicktern session. I drove out to California from Michigan last year and things immediately started clicking in the best possible way. This has truly been an incredible adventure ever since.”
Jeff is one of only seven or so veterans in his entire organization, and he’s aware that his path hasn’t been “traditional” as compared to some of his coworkers. “Everyone knows I’m a Marine, but it’s for good reasons. I coordinated a Veteran’s Day observance for the studio and also organized our Marine Corps Toys For Tots toy drive, so it has been nothing but a positive experience for everyone. My enthusiasm is pretty next -evel though. I hate to sound like a Lego movie song, but everything is awesome.”
During his time in the Marine Corps, Jeff was no stranger to spending long spells away from home. Having deployed in support of both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom with a wife who was also on active duty at the time, his family has learned to adjust to long absences in favor of pursuing what’s right for the family in the long run.
“Being separated from my family is the main challenge so far. Since my wife is also a Marine and my sons grew up in a Marine household, we can easily equate this in military terms. Dad merely went on some Temporary Additional Duty for 10 weeks, got a 3 week extension, then accepted short tour orders which were extended and so on. It’s like a mini-deployment except I’m in Burbank, California not Helmand Province and it’s A LOT more fun here,” Jeff laughed.
Despite my intimidated first impression of the Master Sergeant across the street, Jeff isn’t a scary guy at all. In fact, he’s a downright pleasant person who truly loves to entertain and educate kids through his work – an unlikely transition for a career Marine, but then, I think many service members have an oft-ignored passion or talent that might seem “unlikely” in the eyes of the men and women they serve alongside.
“If you take that good ole’ Marine Corps mindset combined with a true passion for what I’m doing right now, it just makes every day amazing. I mean that sincerely. The challenges faced during my time in the Marines keeps me extremely well grounded and I don’t take a single day here for granted. After all, we’re making cartoons and entertaining kids. You can’t help but have fun doing that.”
Jeff hasn’t climbed to the top of the animation hierarchy yet, and isn’t sure how long his pursuit of his dream will keep him in California – or where it may lead next – but Jeff and his family aren’t putting any limitations on what’s left to be accomplished and just what it could take to get there. As a guy who recently left my own civilian career to run off to Georgia and pursue my own dream, I can’t help but admire what Jeff and his loving wife, Heather, have accomplished in the years since I last served with them.
Before we ended the interview, I asked Jeff if he had any saved rounds or bits of advice for a new generation of separating veterans looking toward the civilian horizon with trepidation or uncertainty.
“Don’t fall for the trap that you’re limited to finding just a civilian version of what you did in your branch of the military. Keep your good work habits sharp and use your GI Bill, if you have it, toward something you love. Do join a Marine Corps League, American Legion or VFW so you can have some like-minded people to talk to every now and again. Above all – take a chance. Don’t deny yourself the shot at doing something you want to do just because of self-doubt or you perceive you might be too old. My rebirth came when I was 45 and it was only because I took a chance,” Jeff relayed before punctuating his stance with one final order:
“Go forth and do great things.”
Roger that, Master Sergeant. We will.
You can follow Jeff Sornig’s cartooning adventures on Instagram here.
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