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Vet Finds Mission In Sketching Fallen Soldiers

Michael Reagan starts a drawing with the subject's eyes. Once the eyes are on paper, he says, "that means we have a connection."
Liam Moriarty for NPR
Michael Reagan starts a drawing with the subject's eyes. Once the eyes are on paper, he says, "that means we have a connection."

For years, Seattle artist Michael Reagan drew lifelike portraits of the rich and famous. But several years ago, he started drawing pictures of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and giving them to their families.

It's now become a mission: Reagan is offering to do a free pencil portrait of every service person killed in Iraq or Afghanistan for any loved one who asks. So far, he has drawn about 2,000 of the 4,300 Americans killed in the wars, as well as a number of British soldiers.

For more than six years now, Reagan has worked 10- to 12-hour workdays in his home studio; each day, he typically produces two piercingly realistic portraits of young men and women who have died in the current wars.

His own service in Vietnam left him feeling a need to reach out to the loved ones left behind.

"I have a drawing over there right now that I have in my mind of a dad that I'm going to be drawing, kissing the cheek of his daughter, who will never see him again, a young little girl," Reagan says. "This is with me all the time."

The Fallen Heroes Project

The sense of mission that drives Reagan emerged in 2004, when the money he raised for charity with his drawings of celebrities garnered him national news coverage. Soon after, a widow wrote him asking what he'd charge to do a portrait of her husband, who had died in Iraq.

"I wrote back to her and I said, 'I'm a Vietnam combat veteran. I can't possibly charge you, so let me do the drawing for you for free.' And I did that."

Reagan remembers the heartfelt thank-you he got when the woman received the portrait. Reagan says that when the widow opened the envelope and pulled out the portrait and looked into the sketched eyes of her dead husband, she said she felt reconnected with him instantly.

He says the woman told him, "I'm only calling you today to thank you. Last night was the first time I slept all night in a year."

As military chaplains and family support groups heard about Reagan's offering, requests started to pour in. Reagan retired from his day job and threw himself into this volunteer work, turning it into a nonprofit organization he callsThe Fallen Heroes Project.

Over time, he says, he has found himself filling a deep need for the grieving families.

"When these soldiers died, there was a message not delivered. I believe in my heart that some part of the spirit of all these soldiers is with me when I'm doing these drawings. And they are, for whatever reason, through me, sending that message home," Reagan says.

'A Tremendous Friendship'

Less than a year into the project, Reagan drew a portrait of Lt. Ben Colgan, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. When Colgan's parents arrived to get the picture, his father — Joe Colgan — was struck.

"When he showed me the picture of Ben, I just had an overwhelming feeling that my son, Ben, wanted me to know and be friends with Mike. And that was the beginning of a tremendous friendship," Joe Colgan says.

Now, once a week, Colgan goes to Reagan's house and carefully hand-addresses the envelopes containing that week's portraits, then mails them off. The two men began with opposing political views on the Iraq war. But Colgan says working together has been healing for both of them.

"I mean, I've just seen him become a different person as this project's gone on and on, and that's what's really touched me and helped me. It just opened my sense of love, too," Colgan says.

Earlier this year, Reagan's portraits of the fallen went on exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery, where they'll become part of a permanent display.

Copyright 2010 KNKX Public Radio

Liam Moriarty