Faces of the Fallen

Originally published April 15, 2005

By Ian Sherr


hey are standing at attention, looking straight ahead and completely silent. The rows of soldiers go on for what seems to be an eternity. And with each corner turned there are even more, just standing there, looking out at the world. Some of them look stern and confident; others are smiling. But every one of them is dead.

These are the faces of the


Their portraits line the walls of Syracuse University in New York and the hall of the Women‘s Memorial in Washington D.C.‘s Arlington National Cemetery. Both “Faces of the Fallen“ memorials have been created to honor the lives of these soldiers.

Their portraits line the walls of Syracuse University in New York and the hall of the Women‘s Memorial in Washington D.C.‘s Arlington National Cemetery. Both “Faces of the Fallen“ memorials have been created to honor the lives of these soldiers.

Creating the Memorial

In the four years since the War on Terror began, more than 1,700 American soldiers have lost their lives. And as news of their fate has reached their hometowns, their faces and names have been printed in newspapers and shown on television.

When the 1,000th American soldier died in Iraq on Sept. 9, 2004, the New York Times ran an issue with each of the soldier‘s pictorials as a tribute to those who had died.

It was after seeing those pictorials that a group of students and faculty at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California, began a project to honor those fallen American soldiers.

“The professor there, Chester Arnold, said he wanted to do this,“ explained Syracuse University Art Professor Stephen Zaima. “Within two months, they had painted and drawn 1,109 faces.“

Upon learning about the project, Zaima offered Arnold a chance to bring the exhibit to New York and display it at Syracuse University.

By the time the transfer to New York was completed, 309 more soldiers had died. As a response to the growing list of casualties, Zaima decided to update the exhibit.

“One of the many things we talked about was whoever took over the show, either Marin or Syracuse, would keep painting faces,“ he said.

The Snowball Effect

After Zaima‘s exhibit premiered in New York, a similar project began in Washington D.C. Organized by Corcoran College of Art Professor Annette Polan, the project was also called “Faces of the Fallen.“

The Washington D.C. memorial, however, focuses on the more than 1,300 soldiers that have perished from the beginning of the Afghan War to Veteran‘s Day of 2004.

Wilma Vaught, Retired Brigadier General of the Air Force and president of the “Women in Military Service“ memorial, was instrumental in bringing the “Faces of the Fallen“ to Washington D.C.

“What distinguishes this one is that it‘s in Washington D.C.,“ she told City on a Hill Press. “Here it is, in Arlington National Cemetery. Here it is, across the street from the Pentagon. Here it is, across from the Department of Defense.“

Both the Syracuse and Washington D.C. artists used newspaper clippings and family photographs to create their works. While the Syracuse exhibit was limited to drawings and paintings, the Washington D.C. exhibit included sculpture as well.

A Personal Connection

Creating the portraits of these soldiers was not only a laborious effort but, as many of the artists learned, it was an emotional undertaking as well.

Ashley McDowell, a sophomore at Syracuse University, said that the most emotional thing for her was painting the portrait of Army Sergeant Charles Webb.

“When I was drawing him, it hit me that this was someone who was often referred to as just a soldier,“ McDowell said. “That was all I had ever thought of these men and women as – soldiers .“

As she continued to paint the 21 year-old who died in a roadside bombing last November, McDowell‘s perspective changed. “When I was working on the drawing, I realized that he was a person. Being a soldier was only part of who he was,“ she said.

Jennifer Schiffman, a Syracuse University senior, said she, too, felt a connection while she was painting.

“When you stare at a picture of someone for hours and analyze every tiny proportion of their face – what makes their face different from every other face in the world – it‘s hard not to feel a connection to them,“ she said. “After not looking at these photographs for several weeks, I can still picture them in my head. I wouldn‘t be surprised if I can still picture them after several years.“

Professor Zaima said that these student‘s experiences were not at all uncommon.

“It was a unique experience,“ Zaima said. “You get to know [the soldier] better than you thought you would.“

Helping to Remember

Right before the Syracuse exhibit opened, Professor Zaima received a phone call from a soldier who was stationed in the area.

“He wanted to know if his two buddies were up on the wall,“ Zaima said. “We found them and told him, and said he could come out to see them“

After learning that the soldier was scheduled to ship out on the day the Syracuse memorial opened, Professor Zaima invited the man to come and watch the students finish putting up the exhibit.

When he finally found the portraits honoring the two friends he had lost, the soldier froze, studying them.

“He asked if there was anything he could do to help. I suggested that he could help a little with the nametags that would go below the portraits,“ Zaima said. “Then, I asked him to begin with his two friends.“

As Zaima watched the soldier placing the placards underneath the portraits of his buddies, he remembered thinking, “It was like watching someone rub the names on the Vietnam War Memorial.“

He added, “It‘s moments like that that you will never forget.“

Hitting Home

Sue Martini, senior secretary at Syracuse University‘s Hendricks Chapel, had a special connection to the exhibit. Her nephew, Bobby, was a marine stationed out of Madison, Wisconsin.

“He was close to being done, and then he was told he would have to go to Iraq,“ she said. “He was adjusting pretty well and he was writing letters regularly to both his family and to me.“

Then, one day, he was on patrol and a roadside bomb went off, killing three of the four marines in the patrol, including Bobby.

“When Bobby was shipping out, he said before he left that if he had it to do over again, he would,“ Martini said. “He seemed to be really trusting that God was helping him out.“

When she heard about the exhibit, Martini made sure to see it as soon as she could.

“It helped me remember how tragic it was for us,“ she said. “It made me think about the marine we lost and how it felt for us, and then I remember thinking it happened another 1,300 times.“

Martini went back to the exhibit a number of times after that, experiencing something different with each visit. She even began to read the guest book.

“I saw a lot of emotions expressed and some people did not understand [the exhibit] was purely to honor our soldiers – not to make a statement about the war,“ she said. “One person asked ‘What about the Iraqis?‘ And that is true, but this was about honoring our soldiers.“

Professor Zaima said that while he understood many people would feel differently about the exhibit, he wanted to make sure it was politically neutral.

“This is not about the merits of the war,“ he said. “We‘re an educational institution and whether this is pro-Bush or pro-war is not part of the dialogue.“

Alice Yang-Murray, an associate professor of history at UC Santa Cruz, said that keeping the exhibit politically neutral was an important part of the memorials.

“It‘s important to recognize the individual people,“ she said. “You shouldn‘t mourn them simply as historical figures.“

No Ordinary Memorial for No Ordinary War

But not all of the people who served along with the memorialized servicemen and women were pleased with the exhibit.

Matt Childers, who has been to Iraq twice now as part of the military, saw the memorial as being the right thing to do at the wrong time.

“A memorial of this type should wait until the situation is under control,“ he said. “Although there was a huge improvement in the status of [Iraq] from the first time I was there, the war is by no means over, and we are sure to lose more lives.“

Childers added that his main objection was that the Washington D.C. exhibit is not a permanent one.

After the memorial is removed in November 2005, Childers asks: “What then? How will they ‘honor‘ the fallen troops from November and on?“

Still, Childers said he supports the idea of a memorial, but only if it would be continuously updated as more soldiers are brought home.

Associate Professor Yang-Murray said that although it is understandable that people would feel similarly to Childers, the timing of the memorial is significant.

“If you wait until the conflict is over, there‘s an official storyline of whether it‘s a win or a loss, that will affect how people look at it,“ she said. “These memorials are simply meant to provide immediate comfort to family members and recognize their loss.“

Helen Wong, a representative of AMVETS – American Veterans – and a veteran herself, said that she thought the memorial was a great idea, even if it is temporary.

“It’s about not letting the American public forget that we have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers over there,“ she said. “You go off to war thinking you‘ll win it, but it doesn‘t always happen that way. And these faces are the reality of war and major conflicts. “

She added, “Sometimes the end result is not the way you picture it.“

(By Ian Sherr. Published April 15, 2005 with City on a Hill Press.)