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Portraits of the Fallen

Liam Moriarty

For most of his career, Edmonds artist Michael Reagan drew life-like portraits of the rich and famous; movie stars, sports figures, six presidents, the Pope. But several years ago, he started drawing pictures of American soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and offering them free to the families.

The artist - who's also a Vietnam vet -- feels this gift to the loved ones left behind is a kind of healing, not only for the families, but for himself.

Every morning between 3 and 4 o'clock, Mike Reagan gets up in the dark, makes himself some coffee, and pads down the stairs to his studio with his cats Casey, Ozzie and Cody. He puts on some music, sharpens his pencils, sits at his drawing table near the window   and prepares to have his heart broken.

For more than six years now, seven days a week, this has been Reagan's routine. During a 10-to-12 hour work day he typically produces two piercingly realistic portraits of young men and women whose lives have been tragically cut short.

"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. And I can see that picture in my mind, it's a picture I'll do this weekend," Reagan says. "This is with me all the time."

By now, Reagan has drawn more than 2,000 of these portraits. He calculates that the faces of more than half the U.S. soldiers who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan have crossed his drawing table.

Reagan's life wasn't always like this. In 2004 he was in charge of product licensing for the University of Washington. The money he raised for charity with his drawings of celebrities got him some national news coverage. Soon after, a woman wrote him asking what he'd charge to do a portrait of her husband who had died in Iraq.

"We were on e-mail so I wrote back to her and I said,  I'm a Vietnam combat veteran. Your husband was a corpsman. The bravest people I know in the world are corpsmen. I can't possibly charge you, so let me do the drawing for you for free.' And I did that."

A few days later he got a phone call from the woman, who described receiving the portrait, "'And when I opened up the envelope and I pulled my husband's portrait out and I looked into his eyes,' she said,  I reconnected with him instantly. And I'm only calling you today to thank you. Last night was the first time I've slept all night in a year.'"

Word spread that Reagan was offering these stunning portraits for free. He got more and more requests from families who sent photos of their loved one they wanted memorialized.

Military chaplains and family support groups got wind of what quickly grew into the "Fallen Heroes Project."

Reagan retired from his job at the university to work on the portraits full-time. Recently, they went on display at Arlington National Cemetery.

So, what's going on here?

They're great portraits. But the families already have the photographs that the drawings are fashioned after. What does the hand-drawn portrait do for the families that the photos don't? Reagan says the hundreds of messages he's gotten from the recipients of the portraits have given him a clue.

"When these soldiers died, there was a message not delivered," he says.

"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."

To do that, Reagan says, he has to have a conversation with the subject he's drawing. And he does that by starting with the eyes.

"It's like right now, you see that picture on my drawing table? The eyes of that drawing are looking back at you. The rest of the picture isn't there yet. But those eyes are there and that means we have a connection."

Reagan isn't a particularly religious man. And when he talks about this, he's leery of coming across as somehow proselytizing. But he says the experience - over and over again - is undeniable.

"That's really happening. On a continuing basis. That conversation is them telling me what I'm supposed to do for their parents at home, whom I don't know. The only part of this, you understand, who doesn't know the people involved is me! Yet the answers seem to be getting it home. Who else could be doing it but them?"

That healing transmission has changed Reagan's life, too. Less than a year into the project, he received a request for a portrait from the father of Lieutenant Ben Colgan, who was killed by a roadside  bomb in Iraq. When it was done, Ben's parents came up from their home in Kent to get the portrait   Joe Colgan says he was struck.

"When he showed me the picture of Ben," Colgan says, "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."

Now, once a week, Colgan shows up at Reagan's house and carefully hand-addresses the envelopes containing that week's portraits, then mails them off. The time the combat veteran and the grieving father have worked together has helped both come to terms with their feelings about two wars, four decades apart.

Colgan says he's seen Reagan become a different person as the project has gone on.

"And that's what's really touched me, and helped me. It just opened my sensed of love, too."

For his part, Mike Reagan says he's dedicated his life to drawing these portraits for as long as there's a need. And right now it's hard to see when that need might end.

Liam Moriarty started with KPLU in 1996 as our freelance correspondent in the San Juan Islands. He’s been our full-time Environment Reporter since November, 2006. In between, Liam was News Director at Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon for three years and reported for a variety of radio, print and web news sources in the Northwest. He's covered a wide range of environment issues, from timber, salmon and orcas to oil spills, land use and global warming. Liam is an avid sea kayaker, cyclist and martial artist.