LYONS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) – After Anita Miller read a July 2005 article in The Columbus Dispatch about young men killed in the Lima Company while serving in Iraq, she could not pull out the story of his head or his dreams.
“It broke my heart,” Miller said. “It broke everyone’s heart.”
It was the following month that Miller, a Lyon artist and former resident of Ohio, dreamed of life-size portraits of those who died displayed in the rotunda of the Ohio Statehouse. Miller felt called to make this dream a reality.
She contacted the families of those who died. With their permission, she began a 2.5 year journey to create a traveling exhibit, called the Eyes of Freedom. The expo began in 2008 and has since visited 32 states for more than 350 events.
Using her skills as a painter, she created life-size portraits of the 22 Marines and one Navy Corpsman who served with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines and died between May and August 2005. At the foot of each portrait lie the boots of the slain man. The shoes were donated to Miller by the men’s families for use with the exhibit.
This week, Miller’s exhibition was driven to Lyon by a motorbike escort.
The free exhibition is presented at the Lyon Regional Library until Saturday. The bronze statue of OA called “Silent Battle” is also part of the exhibit and seeks to give voice to mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that some service members face. People are encouraged to write messages of support or the names of fallen service members on dog tags and leave them at the foot of the statue.
Miller wanted to know better who the young men were so she could show people that they were more than just a name. She invited their families to her studio. They brought her pictures to study: baby pictures, high school graduation pictures, and wedding portraits.
“Families are really involved and want their sons’ stories to be told,” Miller said.
Mike Strahle, an Ohio resident and Navy veteran who served in the Lima Company, works alongside Miller to keep these stories alive.
Strahle survived a 2005 roadside bombing in western Iraq near the Syrian border that killed six of his comrades. He recalled how he was riding alongside 20-year-old Wesley Davids in the vehicle when the attack happened. Davids was among the men who died in the bombing. He is depicted in the portraits. Next to his boots is the last letter he wrote to his family.
“It’s probably one of the most powerful things we have in the room,” Strahle said.
For the families who lost their sons, Strahle said he knows the exhibit has given them a sense of healing. As someone who served alongside them, it did the same for him. He said those who serve don’t have the time they need to mourn their comrades in the moment because they still have a mission to complete. The exposure made him cry and remember his military colleagues.
Strahle, who serves as the show’s executive director, gave the art its name. Miller said Strahle told him he noticed how the viewer of portraits found themselves drawn to men’s eyes. He wanted the exhibit to reflect this and the sacrifice of their service, thus making room for the title: “The Eyes of Freedom”.
When Strahle travels, he sees the portraits resonate with veterans of all eras.
“They see their (own) comrades,” Strahle said.
Visiting the exhibit on Wednesday was Air Force Reserve veteran Lisa Hill, who was moved to tears by the men’s stories and paintings.
Hill visits Colorado from Tampa, Florida. She stumbled across the exhibit on her way out for coffee on Wednesday morning. She said she was touched by how Miller captured the personal qualities of those who died.
“To see all of these young people who gave their lives for us and for our freedom is important, and to hear their individual stories is touching,” Hill said. “It’s incredible.”
This is not the first time that Miller’s art has marked Lyon. She created the Renewal Bell, which is displayed on a walking path in Lyon, and signifies the city’s courage to recover from the 2013 flood.
When Miller reflected on what she heard from the men’s family members, she said the exposure was a way to extend their sons’ service to their country.
“They’re really happy to have their sons working on missions,” Miller said.
More information: https://eyesoffreedom.org/ and https://lyons.colibraries.org/
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