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Holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day urge us to remember those who gave everything to preserve our freedom, which, for many of us, is an incredible and unthinkable sacrifice. Too often though, this bears to mind endless fields of tombstones and faceless cemeteries. Rarely do you get to see what fallen combat veterans looked like, or understand what kind of people they were.
One man, Corporal Michael G. Reagan, has accepted a mission to change that. Cpl. Reagan joined the Marine Corps in 1966 and fought in the Vietnam War, where he saw some of the fiercest battles of the conflict. When he was 19, one of his fellow marines bled out in his arms.
He looked me in the face and said ‘Mike, I just want to go home’. And then he looked at me, closed his eyes and died. Then we covered him with a tarp. But I’ve seen that face every day for 48 years.
Reagan said that when he returned to the US, people spat at him, and nobody understood what he had been through, proof that peace-loving protestors can be some of the cruelest people of all. Reagan felt like he left part of himself in Vietnam.
Eventually, Reagan learned how to program computers and went to work at the University of Washington. His official title is Director of Trademarks and Licensing, but unofficially he was the Huskies’ artist in residence and wears a championship ring listing him as “artist.”
Reagan began drawing portraits of fallen soldiers in 2003 when a widow of a soldier killed in Iraq commissioned a picture of her husband. Reagan told the widow he could not possibly charge her, and mailed the black and white drawing for free. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous.
“She said ‘I’m calling you again because yesterday when I opened up the picture and looked into my husband’s eyes, we were able to reconnect instantly. We talked about things we hadn’t finished talking about when he died. I told him I loved him. I felt him say he loved me back. For the first time in a year I’ve slept all night.’
When I hung up the phone I turned to my wife and said, ‘now we need to do them all.’
Reagan is not an overly religious man, but he believed he had been given a mission from a higher power. He quit his job and began drawing fallen soldiers full time.
From his website:
He believes in his heart that when he draws a portrait, the soldier’s spirit sits with him in his studio and helps him do the work, helps him get it right.
The Navajo call it the hollow bone, the idea that a person can act as a conduit for knowledge, memory, or consciousness, to cross over from another dimension to this one. “Death is just a change of form”.
When you hear someone say something like that, a twinge of doubt and irritation enters your mind, because usually it is the ridiculous ravings of a doped out hippie New Age shaman-type joker. But from Michael Reagan, who has been so close to death and touched the other side, it’s easy to believe there is something we cannot explain. It’s a beautiful comfort to know that the spirits of those who died to protect us live on in some form, even if only in pencil and paper.
Reagan’s drawings are incredibly lifelike, and maybe something beyond that. The families who receive them truly feel reunited with their loved ones. Reagan says he always starts with the eyes, because that’s how he knows “the solider is there with me. He’s helping me get it right.”
To date, Reagan has completed 4,753 portraits over 13 years.
A Gold Star father once told me, ‘you know what you’re getting out of doing all this work right? Your soul is getting to come home from Vietnam.’ When he said it, I knew it was true.
Reagan recently discovered the name of Vincent Santaniello, the man who died in his arms all those years ago. He reconnected with family of the man and created a portrait of him, as well.
Vincent’s nephew Ralph said that when Vincent died, a large portion of his grandparents died with him.
People used to call the house and say ‘I’m so glad that baby killer is dead’. Eventually my grandfather ripped the phone out of the wall and burned all of Vince’s things. He couldn’t take it anymore.
I learned that my uncle has a legacy, that he lives on, he’s been living for years in these portraits.
Ralph took Michael’s portrait of Vincent to the cemetery where his grandfather was buried, where he never got to say goodbye to his son.
I said to him, ‘he’s here. Vinny’s home now.’
Remember those who have served. Happy Veterans Day.
To support Michael Reagan and the Fallen Heroes Project, go here.
All quotes were taken from Michael Reagan’s interview with Here and Now..
Image via Shutterstock