Life-size paintings of veterans represent the human side of war


For most of us, when we saw the evening news at the height of the wars in the Middle East and heard of the men and women being killed in action, these were just statistics represented by a name and maybe a picture. When you visit The Eyes of Freedom, a traveling exhibition of life-size portraits of twenty-three of these victims, men become more than statistics.

You see a young man wearing a bandana around his head, another soldier with stars tattooed on his arm, and you read a copy of a letter written home by a twenty-year-old sailor raising the possibility of his death. Behind each life-size portrait hides a story.

Mike Strahle, executive director of the nonprofit The Eyes of Freedom, served with the men and was injured in one of the attacks that killed six of them.

Strahle remarks, “The eyes are what people connect with. Art reaches the corners of the heart and creates the connections that can break the cycle of pain.

This organizing and traveling exhibit honors a group of twenty-two Marines and one Marine Corps member who lost their lives during a four month period from May to August 2005. What drew the Attention to these tragedies is that all of the men were from the Lima Company, a reserve company of the Ohio Marine Corps and the majority were from that state. Some even came from the same communities and knew each other personally before serving together in combat.

Anita Miller, an artist living in Ohio at the time, was the life force behind the creation of this exhibit.

“When I heard about all the deaths, I wanted to do something to help these families, but I didn’t know what. Then I woke up in the middle of the night with a start and hovering in front of me saw life-size paintings, displayed in a circle in the rotunda of the Ohio State House. People thronged around them, leaving messages of love in the boots at the base of the portraits, ”she says.

It took Anita two and a half years to complete the nine portraits. She first collected photos and memorabilia. After finishing the paintings, she brought all the families together to approve the portraits and she put the finishing touches on the paintings. At that time, all the families showed up with the combat boots belonging to their sons and these became part of the exhibit.

During the time it took to finish the paintings, the families of these men bonded and supported each other. And, as in his prophetic vision, the Lima Company paintings were unveiled on Remembrance Day 2008 in the Capitol Rotunda in Columbus, Ohio.

One of the most heartbreaking memories in the exhibit is a copy of a letter written by Wesley Davids to his family in the event of death. Davids passed away on May 11, 2005, just a day after his twentieth birthday. He reveals wisdom beyond his years and states in part:
“I think I’ve finally found the key to happiness. Live your life in a way that is proud of everything you do. No regrets.”

Sean Flaharty was involved in the project from its inception and documented Anita painting the portraits. He is now a full-time member of The Eyes of Freedom, a non-profit organization that manages the exhibits.

“I got involved because my friend Justin Hoffman was the first Marine to be painted,” says Flaharty.

Jason Spencer, commanding officer of VFW 9236 station on Hernando Beach, served with Lima Company and personally knew some of the men who were killed. When he heard in early December that the traveling exhibit would be in Tampa, he contacted Eyes of Freedom to stop over in Hernando County.

“We worked hard to get it here and it was a great achievement to do so in such a short amount of time,” remarks Spencer.

In 2018, a new work of art joined the nine portraits – a bronze statue of a man seated with his head bowed. It’s called “Silent Battle” and was also created by Ms. Miller. The purpose of the sculpture is to raise awareness of PTSD. During the three years he was part of the exhibit, hundreds of people have stopped to touch him and perhaps say a prayer for these veterans who are suffering the hidden scars of the battle.

“There is something really remarkable about Anita’s work. I’ve seen struggling veterans go with the bronze, ‘Silent Battle’, and completely shed the layers of defense worn like a shell for years, ”comments Strahle.

You can still see The Eyes of Freedom Memorial exhibit at VFW Post 9236 located at 3435 Shoal Line Blvd., Hernando Beach. It will be there from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. You will leave the exhibition with a close-up and personal view of these veterans who have paid the ultimate price in the service of their country.

Portrait of Pfc. Christopher Dixon (18), Navy Corpsman Travis Youngblood (26) and Corporal Wesley Davids (20)

To learn more about The Eyes of Freedom organization, log on to


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