Of Portraits, Families and War

Of Portraits, Families and War

Exhibit reveals faces of American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Lance Cpl. Kevin Rumley of Fairfax, the road to Tuesday, March 22, was long and torturous.

Rumley, a U.S. Marine who fought in Iraq alongside a buddy who died, viewed the portrait exhibit called “Faces of the Fallen” as a reunion. He came to see this portrait of his friend of just three months, Lance Cpl. Christopher B. Wasser, U.S. Marine Corps, as well as connect with Wasser's family with whom he had forged a bond.

The portraits displayed at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, are arranged in a timeline of 1,327 U.S. military men and women who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan from October 2001 through November 2004. They are displayed atop poles like grounded flags. The artists stood by their artwork at the opening and spoke with family members, often hugging. Some artists did as many as 10 portraits.

They were flanked by row upon row of paintings, drawings in charcoal, in ink, some painted on glass, others done in relief. They are diminutive in size, 6 inches by 8 inches, but large on impact.

Close to 3,000 family members, friends and artists arrived from 40 states to honor those who were swept away by the randomness of war and brought back by artists who painted the portraits from photos of soldiers they never met.

Scott and Candy Wasser, Christopher’s parents, drove from Ottawa, Kan., to be with Rumley for the event. Speaking with the artist Anne Heinman, who painted Christopher Wasser's portrait, were the Wasser’s three children, Emily, 15, Katie, 18, and her twin brother Nick, 18, who stayed with Rumley during their visit to Washington.

“Chris and Kevin brought all of us here,” said Candy Wasser. “He and Chris became so close in the short time they knew each other. Chris was his mentor.”

Christopher Wasser, 21, died in Iraq on April 8, 2004; Rumley was spared. It was noon. They were at the back of a foot patrol near Husaybah in Al Anbar Province in Iraq when an improvised explosive device exploded around them. Christopher Wasser was two months into his second tour; Rumley was just months out of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Rumley was injured so badly that he underwent 18 operations over eight months before he could leave the hospital.

The son of John Rumley, a police officer in Fairfax who lost his wife, Kevin’s mother, three years ago, the Marine has become a surrogate son in the Wasser family.

“I speak to Mrs. Wasser every day,” said Rumley. “She is a huge source of strength to me and I to her.”

John Rumley thought his son would never walk again.

“I have been a police officer for 26 years and he has seen more than I ever have,” said John Rumley.

But, standing by his friend’s portrait with a new knee, femur and a reconstructed hand, Kevin Rumley is healing so well that he can play the drums and drive the new truck his dad gave him.

“Kevin is incredibly motivated, he worked very hard in rehab as he does in everything else, and it paid off,” said John Rumley, who admitted that the pain of learning his son had been injured would “never leave his brain.”

Kevin Rumley had been on pain medication for so many months that he said he skipped much of the grieving.

“Tonight was draining, but in a good way,” he said. “I am experiencing a year’s worth of emotion here.”

Outside, mirrored in the reflecting pool, Gen. Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered the keynote address. Other prominent speakers included Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Sen. John Warner, (R. Va.) and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

When the speakers finished, the gathering moved gently back inside, back to the portraits.

Rosabel Goodman-Everard, an artist who worked with co-chairs Annette Polan and Anne Murphy to organize the event, painted several portraits. She is a military daughter who is against the war. “When painting my portraits I struggled with the concepts of death and war,” Goodman-Everard said. But she participated because she felt that the comfort these families derived was from the idea that their child died a hero’s death. “Who am I to tell them what I feel?” she said.

The exhibition became the inspiration of Annette Polan, a professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design who teaches portrait painting and drawing. She said that she had been moved by the rows of photographs of fallen soldiers printed in the newspapers.

With help from friends and artists, the exhibit became a reality. “Through the act of making art we have empowered a whole group of people,” said Polan. They hope to keep on painting into the present. If funds can be raised, the exhibit may go on tour. Eventually, the art will be given to the families. “Many people have felt helpless and haven’t had a way to express their grief,” said Polan. “This has been a way to mourn.”

Tamora Ilasat, an artist who said that she does not usually paint portraits, volunteered to do two. One, Jorge Molina Bautista, from Puerto Rico, was a Marine who died on May 23, 2004. He had a wife and three sons.

“This is my way of doing something for these families,” she said. “It is a gift for this beautiful man who is so loved by his friends and family."