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The traveling Eyes of Freedom exhibit in Loveland, Colo., on its way to Lyons.

The traveling Eyes of Freedom exhibit in Loveland, Colo., on its way to Lyons. (The Eyes of Freedom Lima Company Memorial/Facebook)

LYONS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — After Anita Miller read a July 2005 article in The Columbus Dispatch about the young men killed in Lima Company while serving in Iraq, she couldn’t get the story out of her head or her dreams.

“It broke my heart,” Miller said. “It broke everybody’s heart.”

It was the next month that Miller, a Lyons artist and former Ohio resident, had a dream about life-size portraits of those who died being displayed in the Ohio Statehouse rotunda. Miller felt called to make that dream a reality.

She contacted the families of those who died. With their permission, she began a 2½-year journey to create a traveling exhibit, called the Eyes of Freedom. The exhibit debuted in 2008 and has since visited 32 states for more than 350 events.

Using her skills as a painter, she created life-size portraits of the 22 Marines and one Navy Corpsman who served in Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines and died between May and August of 2005. At the foot of each portrait are the boots of the man killed. The shoes were given to Miller by the men’s families to use with the exhibit.

This week, Miller’s exhibit was led into Lyons by a motorcycle escort.

The free exhibit is being displayed at the Lyons Regional Library through Saturday. OA bronze statue called “Silent Battle” is also part of the exhibit and seeks to give a voice to the mental health issues, such as post traumatic stress disorder, which some service members face. People are encouraged to write supportive messages or the names of fallen service members on dog tags and leave them at the foot of the statue.

Miller wanted to better get to know who the young men were so that she could show people that they were more than just a name. She invited their families into her studio. They brought her photos to study: baby pictures, high school graduation photos and wedding portraits.

“The families are really involved and want their sons’ stories to be told,” Miller said.

Working along Miller’s side to keep those stories alive is Mike Strahle, an Ohio resident and Marine veteran who served in Lima Company.

Strahle survived a 2005 roadside bombing in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, that left six of his fellow troops dead. He recalled how he was brushing shoulders in the vehicle with 20-year-old Wesley Davids when the attack occurred. Davids was among the men who died in the bombing. He’s depicted in the portraits. Lying beside his boots is the final letter he wrote to his family.

“It’s probably one of the most powerful things we have in the room,” Strahle said.

For the families who lost their sons, Strahle said he knows the exhibit has provided them a sense of healing. As someone who served alongside them, it’s done the same for him. He said those who serve don’t get the time they need to grieve their comrades in the moment, because they still have a mission to do. The exhibit has allowed him the space to mourn and remember his fellow servicemen.

Strahle, who serves as the exhibit’s executive director, gave the art its name. Miller said Strahle told her that he noticed the way the viewer of the portraits found themselves drawn to the eyes of the men. He wanted the exhibit to reflect that and the sacrifice of their service, thus giving way to the title: “Eyes of Freedom.”

When Strahle’s traveling, he sees the portraits resonating with veterans from all eras.

“They’re seeing their (own) comrades,” Strahle said.

Touring the exhibit Wednesday was Air Force Reserve veteran Lisa Hill, who was moved to tears by the stories and paintings of the men.

Hill is visiting Colorado from Tampa, Fla. She stumbled upon the exhibit while going out for coffee Wednesday morning. She said she was touched by the way Miller captured the personal qualities of those who died.

“To see all these young people who have given their lives for us and for our freedom is important, and to hear their individual stories is touching,” Hill said. “It’s incredible.”

This isn’t the first time Miller’s art has left a mark on Lyons. She created the Bell of Renewal , which is displayed on a Lyons walking path, and signifies the town’s grit in healing from the 2013 flood.

When Miller reflects on what she’s heard from the men’s family members, she said the exhibit has been a way to extend their sons’ service to their country.

“They’re really happy that their sons are out working on a mission,” Miller said.

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