Tuesday, October 11, 2005

EDMONDS, Wash. - The images capture tendermoments shattered by the brutality of war — each one a comfort to those left behind, a loving keepsake for the ones too young to understand. In Tennessee, a grandmother says good morning to the portrait of her smiling grandson.

In Virginia, a mother reflects over a sketch of her young son holding the daughter he never met, and never will.

The images were created by artist Michael Reagan, who has penciled more than 160 portraits of soldiers who died in Iraq. As part of his Fallen Heroes Project, he hopes to draw all of the soldiers killed in Iraq, Afghanistan or any other conflict he considers a “war on terror” as a gift to their families.

By early this month, according to an Associated Press count, more than 1,940 U.S. service members had died in Iraq alone. Mr. Reagan is undeterred.

“I’m not going to stop until I’m done. Or when I can’t do it any longer,” he says while taking a break at his home north of Seattle.

Most of the images are portraits of individual soldiers, but there is the rare special request.

Sandra Rhodes remembers how her son worried whether he would be a good father to his unborn child.

He would never know.

Marine Pfc. Michael M. Carey, 20, died May, 18, 2004, after falling into a canal — 13 days after little Mia was born.

“He wanted to be a father more than anything in this world,” Mrs. Rhodes says, recalling how she sent Mr. Reagan several photos, including one of Pfc. Carey holding Mia’s older sister and another of Mia at 3 months. Both were used to create an image that could never be realized.

In the portrait, Pfc. Carey is wearing glasses and a Superman cap, and his cheek appears to brush against Mia’s head as she giggles and grasps her bib.

“I wanted that portrait for my granddaughter when she gets older … when she can realize everything and understand what has happened,” Mrs. Rhodes says from her home in Amelia, Va.

Families learn of Mr. Reagan’s project — mostly through word-of-mouth or e-mail groups — and send along their precious photos. Many are hoping to recapture what they’ve lost.

Among Mr. Reagan’s latest portraits is a drawing of 1st Lt. David Giaimo, a 24-year-old from Waukegan, Ill., killed Aug. 12 when his Humvee struck a land mine in Tikrit, Iraq. Another is of the daughter of Marine Staff Sgt. Aaron Dean White, 27, who died in Shatt al Hillah Canal, Iraq, when the helicopter he was riding in crashed.

Sgt. White’s wife, Michelle Linn, of Oceanside, Calif., sent only a photo of their daughter, Brie, at her father’s graveside. The little girl, wearing a pink sweat shirt, is nearly dwarfed by the gravestone, her chubby little hand reaching toward her father’s name on the cold, white stone with black etching that reads: Feb. 29, 1976-May 19, 2003.

That drawing was particularly difficult, Mr. Reagan says, casting his eyes to the floor and shaking his head.

On his kitchen counter sit three gold-colored photo albums filled with copies of his portraits, as well as hundreds of thank-you notes and letters from families.

Mr. Reagan, 58, began drawing 40 years ago after breaking his left arm in a high school football game.

In Vietnam, he said, drawing helped fill the long lulls between fighting. He would hunker down in battle trenches to sketch pictures of his comrades’ girlfriends or mothers. Occasionally, a Marine would buy his drawings — paying $20 or $30, whatever they could — to send home.

After the war, he studied at Burnley School for Professional Art, now the Art Institute of Seattle, developing the skill that helped him mentally escape the horrors of battle.

In the past 30 years, he says, his lifelike drawings of celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, and former President George Bush, and his wife, Barbara, have helped him raise millions of dollars for cancer research and charities such as the March of Dimes and the Boys and Girls Club. Three years ago, a portrait of Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki sold at auction for $8,000.

But “none of that’s as important as what I’m doing right now,” says Mr. Reagan, who supports himself by selling portraits unrelated to the Fallen Heroes Project. “If I can spend a couple hours of my time … and I can help somebody start healing, even just a little bit, I don’t have a choice.”

Shirley Stark, of Huntingdon, Tenn., recalls trembling when she received the portrait of her 20-year-old grandson, Spc. Michael J. Wiesemann. Looking at the portrait now, she draws comfort — and peace — from it.

“The likeness of our grandson is so real that I feel his presence and love flow from it,” she says. “This wonderful man not only gave me comfort with his portrait, but took time to help me deal with our grandson’s death.”

Spc. Wiesemann, of North Judson, Ind., joined the Army in 2002 after graduating from high school, and was assigned to the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash. He died May 29, 2004, at Quyarrah Air Base, Iraq, of non-combat-related injuries. More than a year after his death, the Army has not released details, other than to say his death is still under investigation.

At his drawing table, Mr. Reagan relates to Mrs. Stark’s pain as he recalls memories of Vietnam and the buddies he watched die. Then he grasps a turquoise pencil and turns back to the unfinished work before him, tracing a graphite path along Lt. Giaimo’s jawline.

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