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When drawing a portrait of a fallen service member, artist Michael Reagan lifts his pencil and starts with the eyes.
Just this way, he has drawn nearly 3,500 portraits of fallen troops for their families since he made it his mission in late 2003.
“The drawings are very, very difficult,” said Reagan, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran living in Seattle. “I look into the eyes of incredible men and women who died for this country to keep you and me safe. I also see in these people’s faces my friends who came home from Vietnam, or didn’t, but did the same thing.”
Reagan, who speaks with a soft, gravelly voiced calm that reflects the spiritual nature of his work, talked to Military Times after watching the Medal of Honor ceremony for Army Staff. Sgt. Ty Carter, who distinguished himself in the Battle of Combat Outpost Keating by braving enemy fire to rescue a fatally wounded comrade and deliver ammo to fellow soldiers.
“I’ve actually drawn some of the fallen from that battle,” Reagan said.
A total of 4,476 U.S. troops died in support of the war in Iraq, and another 2,264 have died in support of the Afghanistan conflict, according to the Pentagon. Of those, Reagan has drawn four Medal of Honor recipients and many troops who died in Fallujah, Iraq. Most of his subjects are troops killed by roadside bombs.
The 3rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., recently presented Reagan with an Outstanding Civilian Service Medal for his work.
It all began after Reagan was featured on TV news for his work drawing portraits of generals, actors and presidents. The wife of a fallen soldier called to ask him to draw a portrait of her husband, a corpsman who had died in Iraq a year earlier. Reagan offered to do it for free.
The woman told Reagan that after receiving the portrait, she was able to sleep through the night for the first time in a year.
“She said, ‘I was able to look into my husband’s eyes and reconnect and hold conversations we hadn’t been able to finish,’ ” Reagan said. “She said, ‘I told him I loved him, and I honestly felt he told me he loved me.’ ”
Reagan was so moved that he told his wife, “Now I need to do them all.”
“That was 3,500 portraits ago, and this project has changed my life,” he said. “If you asked my wife, I’m a much nicer person than I was nine years ago, whatever that means.”
Eric Herzberg, a former Army captain and one of many recipients of Reagan’s work, helped Reagan start the nonprofit “Fallen Heroes Project.” Herzberg’s son, Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Herzberg, 20, was killed in Iraq, and Reagan has drawn him.
Gold Star dad Joe Colgan drives Reagan’s portraits to the post office each week and mails them. Reagan drew Colgan’s son, Army Lt. Benjamin Colgan, 30, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Bahdad in 2003.
“Mike’s portrait of Benjamin is the most perfect and precious thing I have,” Joe Colgan said in an email. “I’m very grateful to God for allowing me to meet Mike, become friends (brothers) with him and to be associated in a small way with his love and respect for fallen heroes and their families.”
Gold Star mom Laurie Whitham of Bend, Ore., sends Reagan a jar of homemade apricot and raspberry jam every year. He drew her son, Army Spc. Chase Whitham, 21, who died in Mosul, Iraq, in 2004.
“I know the healing each portrait can bring and always want to let Michael accomplish his goal to do them all,” she said.
Reagan said the work heals him, too. One Marine father told Reagan it’s allowing his soul to come home from Vietnam.
“What I’ve learned is what love is really all about, and how I can serve, and that these portraits do help — so that’s what I decided to give my life doing,” he said.
In Vietnam, Reagan sketched portraits of his fellow soldiers on the backs of C-ration boxes for money. Back home, he entered art school and taught computer programming in Seattle.
“There are things I saw that I wish I hadn’t, but you know, anybody who’s been in combat knows about that stuff,” he said of his time in Vietnam.
Reagan said he had been a rifleman with a Marine unit hit hard by North Vietnamese artillery in 1967 during the siege of Con Thien, a fire base close to the Demilitarized Zone.
“I don’t know why I’m still alive,” he said. “They were rocketing us with everything they had.”
He can clearly recall the death of a close friend during the 1968 Tet Offensive and still regrets not being able to summon a few words of comfort before his friend died.
“He looked right at me and died, and I’ll never forget those eyes, so part of what I do when I do my portraits is I always start with the eyes,” Reagan said.
Through his spiritual connection with that moment, he “has a conversation” with the person he is drawing, using what he can learn about them from their loved ones, he said.
“For five hours, I talk with them until it’s time to send them home, and then I send them home,” he said of his subjects.
He said he considers it an honor to receive families’ trust, and in return he hopes to give them a means to reconnect.
“I have many, many, many families who tell me, ‘Thank you for bringing my son home,’ ” he said.
Gold Star dad Donald Jansky of Fox Lake, Ill., told Reagan how much his son, Capt. Benjamin Jansky, 28, cared about his troops. Before he was killed in Iraq in 2005, Benjamin Jansky supervised a team of 60 people in an engineering battalion, tracking more than 500 pieces of equipment. A young husband and father of two girls, he had his own family to go home to, but gave up his own leave so that members of his team could take leave instead, his father said.
“He was a very positive person, very uplifting,” Donald Jansky said of his son. “He spent most of his time trying to keep his troops uplifted.”
Benjamin Jansky had been promoted weeks before he died, and there were no photos of him in captain’s bars, but Reagan added them at the father’s request. He also captured the young officer’s smile perfectly.
Seeing the finished work was “very emotional,” Donald Jansky said. The portrait now hangs in his family’s living room.
It’s emotional for Reagan, too, but he says he shares in the families’ love, not their grief. And rather than detach while he draws, he remains focused so he can create portraits that contain what he says are unsent messages from his subjects.
“When the family receives that envelope with that portrait, and they open it, I believe they receive that message. A lot of them tell me that message is, ‘I’m OK, you can heal.’
“I need to be honest with what I’m doing, and I give every one everything I have,” he said. “I’ve said I haven’t drawn 3,500 portraits, I’ve only drawn one — and the one is the one I’m drawing now, the one downstairs, half-done.”
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