McMURRAY – As veterans from a variety of conflicts and wars carried in the large oil paintings from a tractor-trailer parked beside Cremation & Funeral Care in Peters Township Monday morning to set up the traveling Eyes of Freedom exhibit, the scene was not chaotic.
Rather, the atmosphere was one of respect for the 23 young Marines depicted in the paintings who sacrificed their lives in Iraq.
Mike Strahle knew the young Marines who died. Like him, they were part of Lima Company, Marine 325, a 165-member Reserve unit from Columbus, Ohio, that deployed to Iraq in January 2005. Like most of his fellow Marines, Strahle was young, just about to celebrate his 21st birthday. As a corporal, he was a team leader and was with 14 other Marines in an armored vehicle in western Iraq May 11, 2005, when the vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in the road. Strahle was blown from the vehicle, suffering extensive shrapnel wounds. Of the 15 Marines in the vehicle, six from the Columbus Reserve unit were killed that day.
Strahle has never forgotten those men, or the 17 others who died from the Reserve unit, and through the Eyes of Freedom project, he hopes no one else will ever forget, either.
After recovering from his wounds at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Strahle returned home to Columbus five months after the explosion and began his career at J.P. Morgan.
In July 2011, he received a telephone call from Anita Miller, who had painted several murals, each one 8 1/2 feet tall and 6 feet wide. She needed someone to oversee a touring event and asked for Strahle’s help. After some thought, he quit his job in February 2012 and now works full time coordinating the Eyes of Freedom memorial project as it travels the country. To date, the exhibit has been viewed in 15 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Georgia, and has been on display in high schools, city halls and now a funeral home.
The stop in Peters Township is free and open to the public in the main forum of the funeral home at 3287 Washington Road. The exhibit was open from 2 to 8 p.m. Monday, with additional hours from 2 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and 9 to 11 a.m. Wednesday, with a closing ceremony at 11. Then the exhibit will be transported to the next sites in the Cincinnati area for the remainder of May.
Danielle Andy Belusko, funeral home supervisor, said she learned of the exhibit through the Veterans Funeral Care group, of which the funeral home is a member.
“I love doing this for our veterans for what they do for us,” Belusko said as the truck was being unloaded. “I want to thank them for their service.”
Strahle said Miller, who is from the Columbus area, was so moved upon learning how many local men died in Iraq, she contacted the families of those lost and requested photographs. A short video shown in a room just off the main exhibit tells the story of her passion to pay tribute to the men.
The exhibit depicts the men in uniform and in a setting Miller believed best represented the bleakness of Iraq. Each of the large paintings has images of three men. On the back of the display are the names of those in the Reserve unit, and under the painting is a small plaque listing the birth and death dates, and the Marines’ hometowns. A single candle flickers for each man. One of the more moving tributes is a single pair of each Marine’s combat boots that are placed beneath the painting, some with a small American flag tucked inside.
Strahle said the well-worn boots were loaned by the families, but are not the boots the men were wearing when they died. Those, Strahle said, are always destroyed, and the ones in the exhibit were spare pairs of the three or four pairs issued by the Marines.
The exhibit is funded through donations and sponsorships. Additional information is available at eyesoffreedom.org.
As for why Strahle has dedicated his life to the Eyes of Freedom project, he said, “I was lucky to make it out.”
When the exhibit is fully assembled, the room is silent, and the only one viewing the memorial is Strahle, as he looks into the eyes of those he knew and lost in Operation Iraqi Freedom. That’s when Strahle, now 30, said his emotions take over, and “I get choked up.”
“There are always moments that get to me, like when I connect with those vets from Korea, World War II, and others, and I look at those guys who served,” Strahle said. “There are guys who don’t talk about the experiences, some 40 years ago, and they see this exhibit and all of a sudden the stories start flying. I guess this is a healing sort of thing.”
Someday, he hopes he can get more people involved in the day-to-day operation and work from home base in Columbus. Until then, he will pour his heart and soul into having as many people as possible view the traveling exhibit.
“I am proud. This is something to rally around,” he said.