12 fallen heroes from the War on Terror come home in an artistic tribute

“Let the pride override the pain” are the profound words that Marti Miller often speaks before getting out of bed in the morning. Her son, U.S. Army Sgt. Norman Lane Tollett, was killed in Iraq on April 28, 2007, and was buried one day shy of his 31st birthday.

The ultimate sacrifice paid and bravery shown by Tollett and nine other fallen servicemembers from the War on Terror will never be forgotten as their face are now immortalized on a mural in the heart of downtown Amherst, Ohio. Two other fallen have a battlecross and dog tags to remember them.The mural was dedicated on Veterans Day in front of several Gold Star families, American Legion Post 118 members and Legion Riders, and hundreds of community members. Everyone stood united to pay tribute to the heroes that were all from Lorain County.

One by one the faces of the 10 young men were revealed as the black construction paper that covered them was removed by the skilled hands of the two artists. They unveiled the face of a son, a brother, a husband, a father all dressed in uniform and standing together around a military Humvee to show a sense of team.

“This is our way to pay back, our tribute, to show that we care,” said artist Mike Sekletar, 41, a Sons of The American Legion Squadron 118 member from Amherst. “I’m bringing awareness and honor to our veterans in the way that I know how to do it … that’s by painting. So it’s a real privilege to use our skills and our ability to bring something like this to Amherst.”

For fellow artist Brian Goodwin, his involvement was a unique way to give back.

“They always say never forget and now you can’t,” said Goodwin, 39, who is also a chef at the Valor Home Lorain County, which provides transitional housing for homeless veterans. “I’m serving our country the best way I can … with a paintbrush. I’m glad we can help out in our own way.”

Sekletar and Goodwin painted the young men by reference of small photos that the parents provided. As their sons’ names were read during the Veterans Day ceremony, several of the Gold Star families in attendance spoke words of admiration to Sekletar and Goodwin for capturing their sons’ smile, eyes and honorable service.

Tollett was 27 when he told his mother that he wanted to join the 82nd Airborne Division. “He said, ‘Mom, if I can take the place of a young husband, if I can take the place of a father with young children at home, that will be my contribution.’ And he did,” Miller said. When Miller asked her son why he didn’t want to join the Air Force like his grandfather whom he is named after, she said his response was, “If my grandfather can learn to fly perfectly good airplanes, I’ll learn to jump from them.” Miller lost her son on his second tour in Afghanistan.

She visited Sekletar and Goodwin while they were sketching the mural, and so did the parents of U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Eric M. Barnes. Miller told Tom and Sherry Barnes that “someone is upstairs making sure everyone down here doesn’t forget. We are always proud of our soldiers. But this mural is really neat for others to see and be proud of our soldiers.”

Barnes was 20 years old when he was killed in Iraq in 2007. Before joining the Air Force, his father told him there was a good chance he would be sent to Iraq. Barnes looked his father in the face and said, “‘Dad, that’s the reason I want to join,’” Tom said. Now, as they look at the lifelike image of their son kneeling in the forefront of the mural, they are appreciative of Sekletar and Goodwin for capturing his “bright smile, the person that he was, the airman that he was. We can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for all of our boys. I know for sure this whole project was done out of love. The love you (Sekletar) have for your country, the love for humanity, and the love that you show our family.”

“Every time I see the mural I smile,” Sherry said. “It’s just a wonderful tribute to those young men.”

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James P. Hunter, 25, with the 101st Airborne Division was the first Army journalist to die in combat since the war began. It was June 18, 2010. The mural shows him holding a camera, capturing the soldiers’ stories. “He was telling their story,” said Patty Phillips, his mother. “Sometimes how I can handle his death is knowing that he died doing what he loved.”

Hunter was covering the war in Afghanistan for The Fort Campbell (Ky.) Courier. His family read a passage from one of his war coverage articles that they said stated perfectly why Hunter wanted to serve. “Every soldier and civilian is counting on us to perform our duties so that our freedom and our rights, we fought so very hard for, will not be put at risk or possibly diminished.”

When Hunter told his mother that he wanted to serve with the 101st Airborne Division, the first question out of her mouth was, “Why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good plane?” As she reflected on the mural of her son and his other fallen nine brothers, Phillips said, “It’s breathtaking. It takes your breath away to see those young men, their faces, and my son’s face is there. I hate seeing it. But those young men will not be forgotten. And that’s what this is about. They can’t be forgotten. Not just by us, the families, but by our community. This country needs to remember these young men and women who fought for our freedom.”

Since 2011, Sekletar has transformed the blank two-story brick wall into a historic timeline that honors veterans over four generations. His first mural is that of the famous photograph of the Iwo Jima flag raising, followed by a rendition of the Vietnam War painting “Reflections” with the names of the 98 fallen men from Lorain County, and then a tribute to the Korean War.

John Sekletar, Mike’s father and a member of American Legion Post 118, said he’s happy his son “shows respect to our veterans and the honor that they deserve for serving our country. He’s done a fine job on all of them. This last one is more personal because they gentleman gave their all for their country.”

The artists dedicated hundreds of hours and painted late into the evening hours to bring the men home to the mural at 248 Park Avenue. Ending the brick wall with a mural that captures the faces of real fallen heroes of their generation was emotional for Sekletar and Goodwin, as well as challenging to ensure the most important part of their mural was accurate – their faces.

“Even though I never got to meet any of these guys, I could have easily been buddies with them. It’s emotional,” Sekletar said. “While working on the portraits I got teary-eyed.”

Goodwin said, “The task of taking on something like that, to give the likeness of a person that was living and will live forever in some family’s hearts, is a daunting task. It’s super emotional. Sherry Barnes said her son’s left eye always smiled and that we captured it perfectly. I met Torres’ mom for the first time (on Nov. 10) and she was crying and hugging me.”

U.S. Army Sgt. Louis Torres, 23, died stateside on Aug. 22, 2012, from wounds sustained in Afghanistan. On his last visit home before deployment he asked his mom if there was anything she needed. “I said, ‘No Louis, I’m fine,’” said Armanda Ellis. “Shortly after that he was killed by an IED. Louis was a joy to have as a son.”

Larry Giese, a Marine veteran from the Vietnam War, was overjoyed when he was asked if his son could be honored on the mural. He flew from his now hometown of Las Vegas to witness the dedication and to see his son’s face, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan “Goose” Giese.

“He wanted to be a Marine his whole life … he wanted to follow in my footprints,” Larry said. “He was a grunt. He loved being a grunt. In the less than six months that they were in Afghanistan, 13 of them were killed. He was the last one.” It was Jan. 7, 2011. He was 24.

“This is a club that we don’t want to be involved in, but we are. That’s the way it goes,” said Larry as he reflected back on the other Gold Star families. “It was (Ryan’s) last foot patrol and he was coming home … he didn’t make it. But this is a great tribute. This is a day of celebration and I won’t forget this. Semper Fi.”

The other fallen servicemen on the mural include Army Capt. Michael J. Medders, 25, killed in 2005 in Iraq; Marine Lance Cpl. David R. Hall, 31, killed in 2009 in Iraq; Army Sgt. Daniel M. Shepard, 23, killed in 2004 in Iraq; Army Master Sgt. Robert H. West, 37, killed in 2006 in Iraq; and Army Sgt. Benjamin W. Biskie, 27, killed in 2003 in Iraq; Army Spc. Jason N. Cox, 21, killed in 2008 in Iraq; and Army Sgt. Bruce E. Horner, 43, killed in 2007 in Iraq. 

This spring, they will add Horner and Cox to the mural as pictures of them arrived after the mural was well underway. “It's the right thing to do," Sekletar said. "The honor to do this for the families is all mine. This mural hits home in a different way than the others because there’s real men who gave their all for their country.”

“When the families look at the mural, it’s like they are looking at their son,” Goodwin said. “I like that we brought them to life.”