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Mother mourns 'grim milestone' in longest US war

Associated Press Modified: October 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm •  Published: October 6, 2012
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Lisa Freeman was cradling her 6-day-old grandson in her left arm and watching the news on her iPad while her daughter and son-in-law caught some much-needed sleep. The retired teacher was taking notes with her free hand when she heard the news: The nation had suffered its 2,000th casualty in the Afghan war.

On Sept. 29, Army Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Metcalfe was on patrol in the country's rugged Wardak Province when his unit came under small-arms fire.

As the announcer droned on, all Freeman could do was shake her head and stare at little Matthew — named for an uncle he would never know. Marine Capt. Matthew C. Freeman fell to a sniper's bullet on Aug. 7, 2009, northeast of Kabul, not far from where Metcalfe perished.

It is almost certain that Metcalfe and Freeman — both 29 when they died — never met. Freeman grew up in the Savannah suburb of Richmond Hill, Ga.; Metcalfe was from the village of Liverpool, N.Y., population about 2,400, a few miles north of Syracuse.

Nonetheless, they were brothers, casualties in what has become America's longest war.

Looking at the number 2,000 on the small, glass screen, Lisa Freeman felt as if she'd lost her son all over again.

"I just sat here, reliving the pain and wondering: Where is America's outrage? Where is America's concern that we're still at war?"

"I walk around this country and look in faces that don't even know we're at war anymore. People that are going about their everyday lives, not realizing that they've been kept safe by this amazing group of young men and women who have been willing to sacrifice so much."

She has reason to be bitter. And yet, her son's story is a shining example of how each life — and death — touches so many others. She and all who loved him are bound to others in a spreading web of loss and grief, and they do not mourn alone.

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Matthew Freeman excelled at everything he set his mind to. Eagle Scout, honor roll, student council president. So no one was surprised when he won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, following in his father's footsteps. After graduation in 2002, the son and grandson of naval aviators took his commission in the Marine Corps and went for jets.

Freeman was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, in the summer of 2009 when a resurgent Taliban began retaking areas once thought pacified. When officers asked for volunteers to shore up the thin lines, the young pilot with the striking blue eyes stepped forward.

In July 2009, Freeman made a secret trip home to marry his high school sweetheart, Theresa Hess. He wanted to make sure she would be notified — and taken care of — should anything happen to him.

They were married on July 10, 2009. Thirteen days later, he shipped out.

Barely two weeks into his deployment, Freeman and a fire support team set out for reconnaissance in the Shpee Valley when they came under almost immediate enemy attack and became pinned down. According to an official account, Freeman fought his way into a nearby building and up to the roof to get a better angle on the enemy position.

Once atop, he spotted an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade and was firing at the man when he was shot in the back of the head. A comrade told Lisa Freeman her son was found with his finger on the trigger of his rifle; its magazine was nearly empty.

The following January, Mrs. Freeman was visiting the Pennsylvania home of a woman whose son, an Army second lieutenant, had been killed in 2006 by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. On the wall, she noticed an amazingly lifelike pencil sketch of the fallen soldier and asked the woman who drew it.

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Retired Marine Cpl. Michael Reagan knows something about long, unpopular wars.

When asked about his tour in Vietnam, he says simply, "I survived Con Thien." Translated as "Hill of Angels," the remote Marine fire base just south of the North Vietnamese border was the site of fierce fighting for a year beginning February 1967.

While there, Reagan sketched many of his buddies — some of whom didn't make it home alive.

The Edmonds, Wash., man has since done portraits of dozens of celebrities, 137 Playboy playmates, six presidents, three prime ministers, even a pope. Using pre-autographed picture boards, he's helped raise millions for children's charities and cancer research.

In 2004, a national news show aired a piece on Reagan's work. The next day, an Iraq War widow from Boise, Idaho, called him and asked how much he would charge to do a portrait of her late husband.

He told her there would be no charge; just send him a photo. When the woman called back to thank him for the sketch, he was overcome with emotion.

Reagan turned to his wife and said, "We need to do them all."

Thus was born the Fallen Heroes Project. At the beginning, a general asked whether Reagan understood what he had gotten himself in for. Reagan replied that he figured the wars would last five years, and that he would have to no more than 1,500 portraits.

He has done 3,100 so far. And every day, he gets at least one e-mail, requesting another.

"I haven't drawn 3,100 portraits," he says. "I've drawn one. ... Every one is too many for me."

The 65-year-old artist wakes around 4 a.m. each morning. He "cooks" his coffee, feeds his cats and sits down at his drawing table.

Each portrait takes about five hours, though some take longer and he has done as many as four in one day to have them ready in time for funerals or memorial services. He walks five miles each night, "to just be able to get air back in me."

Reagan works from videos and favorite photos — some showing the person in civilian life. People send him letters and diary entries from the deceased.

"So when I draw," he says, "I feel like I'm having a conversation."

When Lisa Freeman wrote to ask that he draw her son — in his Marine dress blues — she passed along a note from one of Matthew's high school classmates, who recalled the young man who listened so well he made you feel "like you were the most important person in the world."

"I believe the world and the lives he touched are better for him being here," she wrote.

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Joshua Welle was president of the Annapolis Class of 2002. But there were 980 midshipmen, and though he had heard of Freeman, he did not know him — until after his death.

Welle, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, is back in the States for three weeks' leave. He is using part of that time to travel the country and tell audiences about Freeman and other classmates who have sacrificed in the ongoing War on Terror.

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