Gifts of love and respect -- that’s what artist Michael Reagan calls them. They’re his stunning, hand-drawn portraits, which he does for free to honor service men and women who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. It’s part of Reagan’s Fallen Heroes Project.
I met Michael Reagan 10 years ago when he started this project. He’d just finished his 22nd portrait -- a portrait of a soldier, Ben Colgan, who’d been killed in the war in Iraq. I had the privilege of delivering that portrait to Colgan's dad Joe in Auburn. Joe was speechless when he first laid his eyes on the portrait. And he was so grateful to the artist in Edmonds who cared so much.
“How many guys do you know who give their time, their talent, and their treasure away for free? He’s the only one I know,” said Colgan.
A decade later, Michael Reagan has completed 3,800 portraits to honor our fallen heroes. I’ll never forget asking him - in that first story I did in 2004 - why this was so important to him. Reagan said it was because he was a combat veteran who served during the Vietnam War. He said he created these portraits to honor those servicemen who never got to come home -- because while serving, he held a 19-year-old Marine in his arms as he took his last breath.
“He said to me ‘Mike I just want to go home.’ That’s why I draw every day,” said Reagan.
Reagan couldn't remember his names, but he never forgot the soldier's face.
It took 46 years for Reagan to learn the identity of that young man, thanks to a conversation with a fellow Marine he’d connected with recently.
“I knew immediately. I said that’s Vincent Santaniello, Saint,” Doc Nunn said. It turns out Doc had been wearing Saint’s Killed in Action (KIA) bracelet for 25 years.
Shortly after that conversation, Reagan tracked down Santaniello’s family to New York. Saint’s nephew lived on Long Island. Reagan asked Ralph Morales to come to Seattle to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Fallen Heroes Project. When Morales said yes, Reagan began his next portrait: Vincent Santaniello.
I was also invited to that 10-year celebration. The invitation is why Reagan had reached out to me in the first place.
He told me, “You did the first story ever about me and I want you there.”
My response: "I’ll be there in a heartbeat, but I want to do a story about this celebration."
This story includes Vincent Santaniello. I watched Michael Reagan create the portrait of the man he held in his arms, once he learned what he looked like. Reagan creates the portraits from pictures family members send him.
At the celebration, Reagan told the audience about the Marine he held tight amid the firefight and how important that man was to him.
“His face is the face I see every day,” Reagan said.
And then he asked Saint's nephew to come up on stage He then gave him the portrait. You could see the tears in the audience. I had a lump in my throat, holding back tears.
“Michael, thank you. I stand here 46 years after his death, damn proud to say that I’m his nephew," Ralph Morales said. “This man, this kid propelled Mike to do great things. If Vinnie had to die so that thousands of families could feel a sense of dignity, and closure and respect for their lost loved ones, that makes him ( Mike) that more valiant in my eyes."
Vincent Santaniello is home now.
“I just want to go home,” he had told the Marine holding him before he took his last breath.
I called Ralph Morales at his home in Long Island, New York. I was curious about where he hung Saint's portrait.
“It hangs proudly in my office so I can look at it every day,” he said.