Vietnam veteran is on mission of healing
January 2, 2013
It breaks his heart. It feeds his soul.
Twice a day, Edmonds artist Michael Reagan calls on his talent and puts pencil to paper.
About six hours later, the paper has a face staring back at him. But not just any face.
Not that of a movie star or a politician. Not that or an athlete or a model, all of whom he has drawn by the hundreds. In fact, the face is probably unknown to most of the world.
It’s the face of a dead soldier.
“I’m looking at someone looking at me who is no longer with us,” said 65-year-old Reagan, a Vietnam veteran who will visit a Snoqualmie Middle School assembly in mid-January. “And I’m trying to create a piece of art that, when the family of that dead soldier gets it, they get something that helps them heal.”
Tom Burford, a social studies teacher at SMS in charge of the assembly, called him a great man.
“Every once in a while you cross paths with someone who inspires you to be a better person,” Burford wrote in an email. “I will support this man and his efforts for as long as he will allow me to.”
Reagan’s mission started in 2004, when his work drawing celebrities caught the eye of Evening Magazine and then the show’s network, NBC.
A woman in Idaho saw the show and contacted Reagan, asking him to draw a portrait of her husband, who had died a year earlier in the war in the Middle East.
That was the first portrait. In the almost nine years since, he has drawn about 3,000 more. Never unsolicited, always for free.
“A lot of them tell me I bring their kids home,” he said. The woman from Idaho who requested the first portrait told him the night the portrait arrived was the first full night of sleep she’d had since her husband’s death.
A survivor of the 1967 battles of Con Thien near the North Vietnamese border, he said a fellow Vietnam veteran once told him his drawings were helping Reagan’s soul return from Southeast Asia.
One of Reagan’s portraits pictures a soldier with the 13-week-old daughter he never met.
“His mother told me, ‘You know what you did? After you and I are gone, my granddaughter is going to be able to talk to her daughter or granddaughter and say ‘That’s me with my dad,’” Reagan said. “’If you hadn’t drawn that picture, the conversation could have never happened.”’
Reagan said he draws two pictures a day but draws each like it’s the only one on his schedule. He watches videos, looks at pictures, sometimes even reads the diaries the family sends him. All in an effort to get to know someone he will never meet.
“You bet it’s tough,” he said. “I have a cold right now, but for the last few years, I walk five miles a day, just to kind of center myself.”
On the other hand, he said, the payoff is greater than any he earned drawing celebrities, the Seattle Seahawks or as the official artist of the University of Washington Huskies from 1979 to 2005.
“There’s been no money, but it’s much more rewarding,” he said. “What I get to do is thank these people.”
He’s not the only one doing the thanking. The National Veterans of Foreign Wars will present Reagan with a three-year, $75,000 grant Feb. 8. And at the January assembly, the students at SMS will present him with money they raised in a coin drive.
All to keep him pencil in hand, recouping his soul and honoring heroes.
“My project is to draw portraits of every soldier who died in a terrorist attack,” he said, adding that around Christmas, he received a request from the family of a victim of the 1983 American embassy bombing in Beirut.
General Charles H. Jacoby, Reagan said, told him that the families of these victims won’t let him stop.
That’s fine by him.
“I will stop drawing portraits the day before someone has to draw mine,” he said.