For 29 years, the Edmonds Cemetery – the final resting place for many war veterans — has been honoring fallen soldiers with its annual Memorial Day service. On this Memorial Day, an Edmonds artist who has spent the past seven years drawing portraits of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, provided a moving account of his volunteer efforts that help families say goodbye to their loved ones.
Michael Reagan was working as an artist for the University of Washington Huskies but in his spare time would paint portraits of celebrities that were donated to charity. After a local television show featured his work, and the story ended up on the network news, Reagan received a phone call from a Boise, Idaho woman asking how much he’d charge to do a portrait of her husband.
“As an artist, I got very excited about that,” he said. “Edmonds rent is high and I thought I’d start making some money and it would be great. She then said he was a corpsman who died last year in Iraq.” As a Vietnam veteran himself, “I couldn’t possibly charge her,” so he finished the drawing based on a photograph she supplied, and sent it to her. “I did not realize that was going to change my life, “ he said.
Reagan said he received a call from the soldier’s widow the next day, describing how she pulled the portrait out of the envelope when it arrived in the mail: “I looked into his eyes and connected instantly with him,” she told Reagan. “I talked to the portrait as if it were my husband. I was able to say goodbye. I’m calling you now because I wanted to say thank you. Last night was the first night in a year I’ve slept all night.”
After hanging up from the 20-minute phone call, Reagan said he looked at his wife and told her, “Now we need to do them all.” Through his Fallen Heroes Project, as of Memorial Day 2011, he has completed 2,600 portraits of U.S. soldiers — at no charge — and has also done 125 drawings of Allied soldiers from Great Britain, Germany and Canada.
He relayed the story of receiving a phone call at 3 a.m. several months ago from two mothers in Scotland who had just heard their sons had died in the war. “I was their first phone call,” Reagan said. “They spent the next hour and a half telling me about their sons. They wanted me to help them come home. I hear that more than I can even tell you.”
He also shared another story, warning the Memorial Day audience ranging in age from senior citizens to small children that it would be hard to hear. He described a thank-you letter he’d received from a military wife for the portrait he had painted of her husband with his young daughter. The artwork was based on a photograph of the two of them at the zoo for the first time. “I tell her he is looking out for her and loves her very much,” the woman said of her daughter. “She blows a kiss to it (the portrait) before we leave the house.”
Reagan paused to compose himself. “There’s a part of that you don’t know. That’s a letter from a wife whose husband actually killed himself in front of his daughter. He came back from Iraq, as a lot of folks have, and there wasn’t anybody here to care for him. We’re all here, we just need to reach out. I don’t want to draw a lot more of these so I need all of your help. What we did with this project is replace that horrible memory that his daughter might have with something that will be a lot nicer.”
“I’m not under any illusion,” Reagan continued. “I’m not bringing the soldiers home. Bu here’s what I am doing. Most of these people are not dying in a nice way. A lot of the families I work with tell me they didn’t get to say goodbye because they didn’t even get to see who came home. What I’m trying to do is present them with an image that they can talk to.”
“I’m trying to give a doorway to the families who have lost more than most of us will know.”
During his introduction of Reagan, Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper announced that he was declaring Tuesday, May 31, 2011, as Michael Reagan Appreciation Day in Edmonds. You can read the full proclamation here.