- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2007

When Greg Commons’ son called to say he was joining the Army, Mr. Commons was doubtful. He didn’t think his son really understood what might follow.

Yesterday, five years after his son was killed in Afghanistan at the age of 21, Mr. Commons told a tearful audience that given the chance, his son would have done it all over again.

“I don’t wake up in the morning wondering why my son died,” he said, emotion choking his voice. “I know why he died. He performed the ultimate civic service.”

Cpl. Matthew Commons never came home from Afghanistan, but yesterday his father regained a small piece of him — a portrait painted posthumously to honor his sacrifice. It was just one of 1,319 portraits of U.S. service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been on display at Arlington National Cemetery since 2005. Yesterday, those portraits began going home to surviving family members.

At the closing ceremony, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he hoped the “Faces of the Fallen: America’s Artists Honor America’s Heroes” exhibit reminded families of the fallen that the country cares and appreciates the sacrifices.

The exhibit, which portrays those killed from October 2001 to November 2004, will remain open through Sunday. About 650,000 people have visited since the exhibit opened.

More than 200 artists from across the country helped create the memorial, which was started by D.C. portrait artist Annette Polan. The artists worked from small photos to create the faces that stare from a long, gently curved wall at the Women In Military Service for America Memorial.

“This is an important message for people who have served and who will serve that this country cares about them,” Ms. Polan said.

Though the memorial was her vision, Ms. Polan said, she did not anticipate the relationships that would develop between artists and family members.

Peter Karp, an artist who created 10 portraits, said the process was emotional. Yesterday, he easily recalled the name of one soldier he painted — Kyle Griffin, whose family he met when the exhibit opened.

“It was as if I knew him, but of course I didn’t, so I asked them to tell me about him,” Mr. Karp said. “We got to know each other. Everybody cried and embraced.”

He described the process of creating the portraits as a “work of mourning and sorrow.”

Ms. Polan said she tried to keep politics out of the memorial, and was delighted that the artists and family members, whose politics often differed, were able to connect because of the memorial.

“What we swore from the very beginning was this would not be about the politics of the war,” she said. “It’s not about us. It’s about honor, grief and love.”

Lorie Bullock arrived yesterday to receive the portrait of her son, Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan B. Bruckenthal, the only member of the Coast Guard killed in the Iraq war.

“This exhibit has turned tragedy into love and beauty through the artists,” she said. “The dedication and the love the artists put into this is just amazing.”

Mrs. Bullock said she will give the portrait of her son to his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

She turned to gaze to the 6-by-8-inch portraits in different styles and media lining the wall. Some were simple portraits, others were more abstract representations. Most of the faces were young, and some smiled, while others wore the determined look of a recent graduate from basic training. Piled next to them were flags, notes and flowers left by visitors.

“These artists brought them to life again,” she said. “When you look at it you can’t believe they’re not with us.”

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