Portraits of Honor
Memorial Day is a federal holiday to honor those service men and women who have sacrificed their lives to defend this country, and no one knows that better than Michael Reagan. (No relationship to the former president) He started the Fallen Heroes Project ten years ago to honor American service men and women for their ultimate sacrifice during the war on terror. On his website (http://www.fallenheroesproject.org) a family can request a hand-drawn picture of their fallen hero, free of charge.
A combat veteran himself, Michael knows what it is like to see buddies killed in action and understands the heartbreak the families go through. He fought in Vietnam at the DMZ as a U.S. Marine from 1967 to 1968. It was there that he started to draw portraits of his peers. After returning from Vietnam he knew he wanted to be an artist. For thirty years Michael drew portraits of celebrities and important figures. Among those he has drawn include Popes, Presidents, First Ladies, and many actors such as Harrison Ford. After drawing Laura Bush’s portrait the President told him that he caught “the sparkle in her eyes,” and would hang it up in the Oval Office.
His first portrait of a Fallen Hero was of Michael Johnson, a Marine Corpsman who died in Iraq in 2003. His wife, Cherise, contacted him after hearing about this project. She told him after receiving the portrait that she was able to look into her husband’s eyes and reconnect, and that was the first night she could sleep since his death. As with Cherise most of the requests come from word of mouth.
Having done 3800 portraits to date, he told American Thinker he wants to convey to each family, “that we as Americans love and respect their heroes. As I am drawing a portrait I feel the soldier’s spirit sitting with me. I get very emotional when I am drawing each fallen soldier. Because I believe that the person is with us in some intangible sense, I end up having a five-hour conversation with them as I draw the portrait.”
To pay for the portrait, Michael is dependent on donations. At first he would draw two pictures of the celebrities, one that they would keep and one that they would autograph where he was able to auction them off for charity. He also has received some grants, including a three-year grant in 2012 from the Veterans of Foreign War for $25,000. Because the portraits are done with pencils he is grateful that a pencil company maker donates all of the pencils. Each portrait is drawn on a 15 by 20 drawing board, which is also donated. He estimates each portrait costs about $1500 and does approximately sixty a month. He will only do those service men and women who died in the war on terror, including those who lost their lives during the 1983 Marine base bombing in Beirut, the USS Cole bombing, and during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
After being contacted by a loved one, Michael has the family send photographs and describe in detail what the person was like, including their enjoyments and relationships. He learns how they lived and how they died. He commented to American Thinker, “As a combat veteran I understand that dying in war is not romantic or pretty. I think it is hard for a civilian to fathom holding your buddy’s head in your hands as they die. I am proud of dong these portraits but it is something I wish I did not have to do.”
Michael got the inspiration for this project from his experience in Vietnam. One of his buddies, Vincent, died in his arms. “I looked into his eyes as they closed that March day in 1968. It was Vincent’s eyes that I have seen as I start each and every portrait.” A few of the family members who had a portrait drawn of their loved ones talked with American Thinker, noting that the eyes were the focus of the portrait. It seemed that their fallen warrior was looking back at them.
Ralph Morales said his uncle, Vincent Santaniello, told Michael as he was dying that he just wanted to go home. He feels that his uncle did not die in vain since he serves as Michael Reagan’s inspiration. “I look at my uncle’s portrait in my law office with pride and respect since he dedicated his life for the freedoms of Americans. Michael was able to take this tragic experience of my uncle and relay it into something positive, offering closure to other families whose loved ones died in the war on terror.”
Jeff Falkel’s twenty-two year old son, Chris, died in August 2005, in Afghanistan, after a 54-hour gun battle with the Taliban. He was an Army Special Forces staff sergeant. Jeff read about the project in an article and asked that his son’s portrait be drawn with a Falcon in it. “The Falcon is shown prominently below Chris’ chest. Michael told me he put it there because it’s coming out of Chris’ heart and Chris is riding on its wings. When I need support I look at this picture in my family room. What stands out is Chris’ eyes where it seems no matter where you are in the room the eyes follow you. I also put a replica on the passenger and driver’s door of my car. Because I consider Michael an ‘angel among us,’ I gave him one of Chris’ berets, which he keeps on his drawing board.”
Angel Collins lost her twenty-year-old son, Marine Corporal Jonathan Collins, in Iraq in August 2004. She heard about the project from a family member of someone who had died earlier in Jonathan’s unit. She wanted something to remind her of her son that captures who he was a person. For her, “the eyes, the face, the smile are the most powerful parts. It seems that he is looking back at me. I was so moved when I opened the package. This portrait captured the essence of my son who was my shining star. This picture has brought everlasting joy to our family.” Since he was a Marine for only nine months she had his portrait done as a civilian.
With every portrait Michael is reliving Memorial Day each and every day. He is hoping that at least on this solemn day Americans will remember those who gave up so much for this country, “and not think about store sales. I understand the losses. With every portrait I want to think about and remember the person who sacrificed for me and every other American. But we also need to remember the families who also sacrificed their loved ones to protect us. What I want the families to have with the portrait is peace, comfort, healing, and closure. I consider this my life’s work.”
The author writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.