Michael Reagan: A hero to military families

Artists portraits of fallen soldiers help the healing
By Brian Soergel | May 25, 2017
Photo by: Brian Soergel Michael Reagan: “The work I do is incredibly emotional, which is why I take walks every day.”

You can expect shoulder-to-shoulder crowds Monday during the Edmonds Veterans Plaza dedication. Dignitaries. Veterans. Veterans’ families. The curious. But long after the pomp and circumstance is over and the crowds scatter, you might spy one lone figure: Michael Reagan.

He’s one of Edmonds’ best-known personalities, known worldwide for his precise and vivid portraits, so lifelike, so representative. He started by sketching Hollywood stars, moving on to sports and even Playboy playmates.

But Reagan is best known for his Fallen Heroes Project, drawings of military men and women killed in combat. He’s completed nearly 5,000 now. The project had its genesis in 2003 after an “Evening Magazine” profile, but really began near the Demilitarized Zone (DMW) between South Vietnam and North Vietnam 49 years ago.

The Vietnam War was raging, and Reagan was in its bull’s-eye.

Cam Lo


On March 28, 1968, two months into North Vietnam’s bloody attack on South Vietnam known as the Tet Offensive, Michael Reagan and his K Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines infantry battalion found themselves in Cam Lo, a regional headquarters on the south bank of the Cam Lo River. They’d been moved back from the front line at Con Thien to a supposedly safer perimeter.

“But that’s all relative,” Reagan said last week from his second home, the Waterfront Cafe by the Edmonds Fishing Pier. “It’s like being moved from the middle of the freeway to the middle of Highway 99.”

Reagan had been due to end his tour in Vietnam in a few weeks.

When the rockets and mortar fire attack came, the battalion wasn’t caught completely by surprise.

“What the Vietnamese liked to do was, they’d rocket and mortar and throw everything they had at you,” Reagan said. “They’d bomb the shit out of you, pardon my language. As they’re doing this, the Viet Cong and the NVA are moving in on you. The idea is to stop the incoming barrage and hit you while you’re still in your foxholes.”

But with experience comes knowledge. The Marines weren’t fresh-faced arrivals. They’d studied the enemy’s moves, and would spring from their foxholes when the barrage ended.

“So it started slowing down and we jumped out of our holes, ready to fight,” Reagan said, his voice catching for not the last time. During a 90-minute interview, he constantly dabbed his eyes.

“But they didn’t come. We thought it was because all the other patrols were out there; they couldn’t mass on us. So we turned our attention to the injured.”

Reagan first saw Peder Armstrong; a mortar round has instantly killed him. “I removed his dog tags and put him in a poncho liner,” he said, then paused. His breath caught. “I don’t want to talk anymore about that.”

Another fallen Marine, company driver Vincent Santaniello, was barely alive. Reagan ran over to him, as did corpsmen John (Doc) Nunn.

“I grabbed him, and took him in my arms,” Reagan said. “He’d been hit by shrapnel, and his leg was blown off. He wasn’t going to live. He wasn’t feeling any pain, though. He looked up at me, in the face, and said, ‘Mike, all I want to do is go home.’” He hushed his words. “And he went home, you know what I mean?”

He finishes that part of his story, and shows me bracelets on each of his wrists. One is inscribed with Peder Armstrong’s name. The other, with Vincent Santaniello’s.

A tough kid


Seattle native Michael Reagan knew he’d end up in Vietnam.

“I didn’t look at draft numbers. I grew up in a tough house with a couple of drunks. In my senior year at Lincoln High School, I lived in the Gatewood Hotel at First and PIne in Seattle. I was driving a truck for A-1 Furniture, trying to make enough money to finish high school.”

He did, and took a job at Boeing’s old Plant 2 on Marginal Way. That gig didn’t last long.

“I had just lost a friend in Vietnam,” he said. “I just thought that I had to go, so I joined the Marines.” That was in 1966. After coming home to the Pacific Northwest in April 1968, he graduated from Burnley School of Professional Art, now the Art Institute.

One night, he entered Seattle’s Cirque Playhouse to watch Van Johnson in “Boeing-Boeing.” He bumped into the star in a hallway and told him, boldly, that he’d like to draw the star’s portrait from a photo.

“After I finished, I gave one to him and one to Cirque owner Gene Keene. Van Johnson went nuts for the picture. So I asked Gene to let me replace all the Cirque’s photographs with drawings.”

That led to 65 drawings over a five-year period, which parlayed into other opportunities: In addition to creating portraits for the Seattle Seahawks, he worked as a portraitist for the University of Washington, which he’d do for 30 years.

(Reagan proudly wears a Husky national championship ring from 1991 given to him by legendary Husky coach Don James.)

But, back in the day, Reagan still held so-called regular jobs, first as an early computer programmer for the Seattle School District and later as director of Trademarks and Licensing for the University of Washington.

All the while, Reagan fastidiously created portraits from his Edmonds home and studio down by the fishing pier, which is now home to Segway of Edmonds. His portraits, in addition to capturing numerous celebrities, include six presidents and first ladies.

Later, he also created drawings from events in the news. He sketched a portrait of a 4-year-old girl named Lilly Garcia, killed in a drive-by shooting in New Mexico, and a poster of the 26 victims killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass murder.

And … he also worked on drawings for five years with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Marilyn Monroe was his first, and yes, the drawings lingered on places below the shoulders.

“I was doing two shows a year for them in Los Angeles,” he said. “I know a lot of the playmates.” He said Cathy St. George and Shannon Tweed were his favorites. “In fact, they’re on my phone now, and they call all the time.”

He wasn’t joking.

The project begins


Like most serious artists, Reagan began his craft early. He drew a portrait of Katharine Hepburn, and his girlfriend encouraged him to continue. While in Vietnam, he frequently drew pictures of his Marine buddies to pass the time.

But it wasn’t until a fortuitous interview in 2003 with “Evening Magazine” that Reagan’s life changed, and his march to 5,000 portraits of fallen soldiers began. The TV show’s John Curley called, saying he was impressed that Reagan had, over 30 years, raised more than $10 million for charity through his portraits.

(It began with one of Reagan’s first drawings, featuring quarterback Warren Moon, that fetched $1,800 and was donated to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes fund-raiser.)

Reporter John Miller spent seven hours with Reagan at his studio by the fishing pier, wrapping it up into a five-minute segment.

A few days later, a woman named Cherise Johnson called and asked how much he’d charge to draw her husband.

“To be honest with you, I thought I was about to get famous,” Reagan recalled. “It was what my mind was focused on. I thought this was just the next step in my progression. I told her to tell me more about him. She said he was a corpsman, and he died last year in Iraq. His name was Mike. I told her I was a Vietnam veteran, and corpsmen are the bravest people I know. I told her I couldn’t charge her.”

Johnson sent Reagan a photo of Michael V. Johnson of Little Rock, Arkansas. The top part of his head wasn’t in the picture – it was cropped off, like many spontaneous photos are. Reagan finished the picture, adding a full head, and sent it back. He later found out the top of the corpsman’s head had been blown off.

Cherise Johnson gave Reagan a call after getting her husband’s drawing.

“She told me she pulled it out of the envelope,” Reagan said, “looked into his eyes and reconnected instantly. She had spoken with him for the last two hours, and said she was able to finish a lot of the conversations she wasn’t able to before he left.

“And then she said, ‘I felt that he loved me, and that he was OK. The reason I called you is to tell you that last night was the first night in a year I’ve slept all night.’ When I got off the phone, I looked at my wife and said, you know, we need to do them all.”

Reagan wiped his eyes again.

He continued: “Vincent Santaniello’s face is one I see everyday when doing all these portraits. I’ve wanted to bring him home somehow and, over the years, I realized that by doing as many drawings as I could, maybe Cherise’s comments helped make that work. And today, many family members have thanked me for bringing their sons and daughters, husbands and wives home.”

Although Reagan does not charge for the drawings for his nonprofit Fallen Heroes Project (www.fallenheroesproject.org), he does accept commissions. He doesn’t have sponsors, but he does get financial support from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8870, which he’s a member of, and American Legion Post 66. He also receives donations from art-supply companies and veterans’ organizations.

He left his studio by the fishing pier because he couldn’t afford it anymore. He said he needed to focus all the money he and his wife Cheryl had on the project. “Nobody makes money on this,” he said. “My attorneys and CPAs all volunteer, as I do. But I have expenses for the boards, pencils, envelopes, mailings and travel. Now I’m the tightest person with money.”

Reagan, who recently turned 70, proves it with his well-worn Marine Corps sweatshirt, which long ago lost its collar string.

Awards and appearances


As you might expect, Reagan has received considerable attention, having been interviewed by ABC, CNN, PBS and others, as well as appearing in numerous YouTube videos. In 2007, he was awarded the American Legion’s Patriot Award and in 2009 the VFW Commander in Chief Gold Medal of Merit.

He was named Washington state’s 2010 Veteran Volunteer of the Year. In 2013, the Department of the Army awarded him the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal. In March 2015, the Lynnwood Elks honored him with the General Douglas MacArthur Award.

And on March 25, 2015, he was awarded the Citizen Service Before Self Honor (known to some as the Civilian Medal of Honor) by the Medal of Honor Foundation in Washington D.C.

The Massachusetts Legislature has recognized him for portraits he completed for 33 families; the Florida Capitol Building in Tallahassee has his works on permanent display, and Arlington National Cemetery displayed his posters leading up to a Memorial Day ceremony in 2010.

Locally, in 2011, former Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper proclaimed May 31 Michael Reagan Day in the city, honoring him for his many achievements. He’s been honored by numerous local organizations, and in 2015 served as the grand marshal at Edmonds’ July 4 parade.

This July, Reagan will speak at the Gold Star National Convention in San Antonio.

“It will bring in a lot of the families that I’ve worked with,” he said. “It should be interesting. I’ve always shied away from accepting speaking engagements. The work I do is incredibly emotional, which is I why I take walks every day.”

Edmonds Veterans Plaza


As you can see, it’s only appropriate that Reagan be one of the featured speakers at the Edmonds Veterans Plaza dedication on Memorial Day. He’s been one of the main forces behind it.

“I’m so damn proud of all the people who have worked so hard to get this done, because now we feel like we’re welcomed home,” he said.

“This means the world to me. It tells me that people in the city and those in charge of the city, and those who did fundraising and those who contributed financially, care enough about veterans, both those who didn’t come home and those who did. To recognize that we are part of this community.

“I understand some people need to see this as a new park. I get that. But it’s not what it is to me. I’ve been walking down here from my home in Meadowdale for years, and remember when it was just a rock with a plaque on it. I walked by it every day and talked to friends who didn’t come home.”

He was instrumental in getting the old plaque placed.

Reagan said he’s flying his corpsman friend, Doc Nunn, who lives in Albuquerque, to the ceremony. “He’s as big a hero as anyone I know,” he said. “He saved a lot of lives. He can hardly get around anymore – he was blown into a tree during a fight we had in Vietnam. He’s a great man.”

Nunn will see the memorial pavers of Reagan and the two lost back in 1968 – Peder Armstrong and Vincent Santaniello – side by side.

“A lot of times Vietnam vets didn’t want to talk because we didn’t want people to get critical of us or tell us we didn’t know what we were talking about. Some of the experiences are such that you have to want to know it’s true to believe it’s true. But I don’t give a shit about that anymore. I’m 70; I’m over that. I’ve earned my right to be here.

“This plaza is a place where you can sit and reminisce. If people are smart and see people like me there, they’ll come and talk to us. I’ve really worked hard to live a good life and not hurt people, to do good things. But I still have this stuff, if people want to know about it. Come talk to me.”

Reagan, who is truly one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet (veterans are allowed some rough edges), doesn’t care to argue about the Vietnam War. “The politics of the war are not something I’m interested in.”

He wants to talk. But, yes, he still has his opinions.

“If people say the Vietnam War was useless, I say, did you serve? If they say no, I say you didn’t fight this war. I did. My friends did. And my friends didn’t die for no reason, and I’m proud to be a Vietnam veteran.

“Vietnam veterans died because they believe in this country. For some reason, they felt they had a duty to go fight for this country. You can’t always justify why you do something. I was a high school senior. What did I know? There was a war. My friends were dying. Why shouldn’t I be a part of it? Why shouldn’t I go?”

Soldiering on


Reagan says he’ll continue to draw portraits as long as he can. That means getting up in the dark, working five to six hours, taking a walk, and working another five to six hours.

“I work all day with dead soldiers in front of me,” he said. “That’s why you see me walking the streets of Edmonds. I’m trying to heal, because tomorrow I’ve gotta do it all over again.

“This is an incredibly spiritual thing for me. I didn’t use that term at first because some people said it offended them. But it’s this: I gave up my whole life to do this, for nothing. And everything I need shows up. Explain that. How come a family gets a portrait and it arrives on their birthday? Or on a wedding anniversary? There’s a thing connected to this.”

Reagan said he promises families he’ll hold to two ideals while sketching their loved ones.

“I’ll do the best portrait I can. And I’ll never forget. And as long as I have a voice, I’ll never let anyone else forget.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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