“He Died In My Arms.” Why Mike Reagan Is An Artist Today

This man has become a friend over the last few years. He is one of my VFW Post brothers, and he is one of the most generous people I know. He is a true “man for others,” a rare kind of individual in any time, but maybe even more so in our day. He is a talented artist, as you will see in this documentary. But he is also a veteran, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War with an ongoing mission.

Mike Reagan’s life was changed forever on March 28, 1968, at a Marine base up on the DMZ, near Con Tien, Vietnam. It was marked by the intensity of battle and the death of a particular Marine, Vincent Santaniello. As you will hear, Santaniello died in Reagan’s arms. Reagan looked into Santaniello’s face, into his eyes, as he died. Santaniello’s last words to Reagan were, “I just want to go home.” If you have been to war, you know what that moment is like, its sounds, its smells. And you know exactly the intimate depth of meaning in Vincent Santaniello’s last words.

Photo: YouTube/john sharify

Santaniello was the company driver, and one of his duties was to bring the mail in his jeep to the Marines on the base. He had been just a face until Reagan’s platoon Corpsman, Doc Nunn, told him the Marine’s name. From that moment on, those last words and that face have never left Reagan’s mind. There is another important point here. Vincent Santaniello was a “short-timer.” He was due to go home within days. He never made it home.

As you listen to this documentary, you will encounter a man who is moved by love for those who have fallen. He began his Fallen Heroes Project back in 2003, drawing portraits of the young men and women warriors who began to fall in service to the country on fields of battle in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Reagan’s love for those who gave their all is intimately expressed, both in his words and in his dedication to “bring a little life out of death” through the portraits he draws, to “bring them home” to our Gold Star families.

Photo: YouTube/john sharify

Reagan spends around five hours on each one of these portraits. He researches their stories, and as he draws their faces, he communes with them, he talks to them, and they talk back to him. He knows the realities of their deaths in combat, because he was there, in another war. He knows the smells and sounds and the horrors that surrounded them on the days that they fell. He, like countless others, held a dying brother in his arms, heard his last words, and looked into the depths of his eyes as the light of life dimmed and went out.

When Reagan draws these portraits from favorite photos their families provide to him, they come to life and are in the room with him. His workplace is truly a sacred space. The long hours, from early in the morning into the afternoon, are focused with the intensity of an abiding love for both the fallen warriors he draws and for their families. The silence of those hours over his drawing table is tempered only by the sound of his pencils scoring the image of the fallen warrior onto that paper before him. And in his own head, he hears them saying, “I just want to go home. Get me home, Mike.” He is getting them home.

Photo: YouTube/john sharify

What those portraits mean to the families of each of those fallen men and women is really remarkable. In the video done by King 5 News in Seattle, WA, you will hear what those portraits mean to the family members who have received these generous gifts from Reagan’s hand and heart. The principal voice of a family member, the one who articulates the depth of appreciation most in this documentary, is that of Vincent Santaniello’s nephew, Ralph Morales. He has the letters that his uncle sent home from Vietnam, including the last one he wrote, on the day that he was killed, that even has blood stains, his blood on the pages.

Those last words, “I just want to go home” are the origin, the force, and the reason behind what Mike Reagan does every day for the fallen and their families. His battle buddy and friend Doc Nunn, an FMF Corpsman, says of Reagan, “He’s an angel that walks among us.” Reagan would wince at such a comparison, but that is the nature of one so humble, who does what he does not for himself, but for the fallen that he draws and their families. You see, he has drawn each one of those portraits for free. He knows he can’t fix the country or the world’s problems, but he can try to help in the effort to help “fix” a family, a single family, with one portrait at a time.

Photo: YouTube/john sharify

I know Mike Reagan as a VFW brother and as a friend. We were in Vietnam at the same time period. We didn’t know each other then. We were in two different places that happened to be a couple of the most violent places in the war. He is a Marine, and I am an FMF Corpsman. I was there to do what I could to fix immediate wounds or try to save lives. My time serving others like that was brief in comparison, only 13 months. Michael Reagan is still serving and healing broken hearts from the depth of his own broken heart. For us, his brothers in VFW Post 8870, he is just one of the guys, but he is more than that to us. We are all humbled by who he is and what he does for our fellow veterans and their families.

Photo: YouTube/john sharify

Michael Reagan is a humble man with a great heart. That heart is a deep well of love born out of pain and quiet courage. He understands that none of us can change the immense brokenness of the larger world, but he has the courage and the dedication to spend hours bent over his drawing table to “draw a little life out of death” and to bring a little healing to one family at a time. And in reality, that is where all healing begins, at the most intimate and local of levels, not in the august halls of Congress.

Michael Reagan is a common man doing an uncommon amount of good for regular folks who have suffered the loss of a hero of their own. We can not measure the good he has done, nor can we thank him enough. It is comforting to know that there is someone like Michael Reagan among us. He is the embodiment of his beloved Marine Corps’s motto: “Semper Fidelis!” He remains always faithful to our fallen heroes and their families. Bravo Zulu, Mike. OoRah!

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