National memorial visits Kent State Rec

Troy Lee

The lobby of the Kent State Student Recreation and Wellness Center featured oil paintings of 23 life-like men set against a background of a setting sun on Saturday. At first glance, the faces were of smiling, happy soldiers.

They were paintings of Mike Strahle’s fallen brothers.

“The first time seeing this painting was like a punch to the gut,” Strahle said. “It captured them so accurately, it felt like they could walk off the page and just talk.”

Strahle served with the 23 men depicted in the paintings from the end of 2003 until his medical discharge in May 2005. They were part of Lima Company 3/25, a reserve Marines dispatch from outside Columbus.

“It was an eight month deployment,” Strahle said. “From March 1 to November was the time we were going to serve together.”

Everything changed following a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) in May 2005. 

“I was knocked out of the opening in the roof,” Strahle said. “I did some first aid on myself, but it was a heavily watched mission, so there was a helicopter that could land in minutes.”

He was removed from combat due to severe injuries to his intestinal region.

On Aug. 3, the largest IED blast killed 14.

“By this time, people were fed up with roadside bombs. The Marines were fed up with roadside bombs,” Strahle said. “This was the largest bomb they experienced at the time and we were riding around in vehicles people were using still in Vietnam.”

Strahle said the military still experiences IEDs.

“You don’t see roadside bomb explosions in the news anymore,” Strahle said. “It’s not because we don’t experience them still, but the vehicles are better armored, they can withstand the impact.”

The story inspired artist Anita Miller to help provide the families of the fallen with something to give tribute for their service.

“My motivation came from a vision I received in the middle of the night,” Miller said. “The vision was so compelling and overwhelming I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

She couldn’t walk away from the idea. In 2006, she began the project.

The project debuted in 2008. Those that served in Lima Company were invited to see an advanced viewing.

“She got permission from the Gold Star families,” Strahle said. “They are a combination of six to 10 photos each family sent.”

Gold Star families are those families who have lost a member during his or her service.

“It was for the wives and kids to hold onto veteran advocacy,” Strahle said.

Not everyone can offer money for a non-profit, he said, so the memorial was to bring awareness.

In 2011, Strahle and Miller crossed paths again. With the story of Lima Company falling out of the public eye, they had the idea to travel around the country with the paintings.

“It needed a kick in the ass,” Strahle said. “I quit my cozy office job, we got a truck and we started the Eyes of Freedom: Lima Company Memorial.”

Strahle is currently in charge of public affairs for the exhibit. He was invited to Kent State by Cassie Schumaucher to collaborate with her veteran awareness event.

The paintings that were displayed in the Rec were copies: smaller versions of the nine-foot-tall portraits currently in California. These scaled-down images are for easier travel to events like these.

Vietnam veteran Jim Morris out of Louisville, Ohio, sees the impact. Although a relatively modern depiction compared to in 1972 when he was discharged, Morris still sees his brothers.

“When I saw it,” Morris said, “I was plagued with memories. It showed a brotherhood connection.”

He said the support for the memorial reminded him of how far the disrespect he experienced after serving has come.

“I was told not to wear my uniform to not be ridiculed,” Morris said. “I hope it never happens again.”

The paintings will be shown at the Medina County Fair later this year. Miller will reveal her sculpture about suicide and PTSD this coming October.

Troy Lee is the military reporter, contact him at [email protected].