Michael Gerald Reagan, Marine Vietnam combat veteran, and nationally known artist to presidents, athletes, and Hollywood stars, opened his 75-year-old hands and showed his palms to me. “You see these hands?” he said quietly. “It’s the only part of you that you can look directly at. You can only see your face through a mirror. But you can look at your hands directly and see all the changes they go through during your life. These hands have been dirty digging trenches, bloody with the blood of a dying man, and have drawn presidents, famous actors, and athletes, and now are drawing the portraits of the fallen for Gold Star families.”
It was one of the most profound things I have ever heard, the highlight of an afternoon spent in the company of a very special human being. In my oddball walk of life, I have been able to meet an incredible cross-section of people: Billionaires, homeless, CEOs, gangsters, military and civilian heroes, addicts, athletes, coaches, musicians, blue-collar and white-collar professionals. Of all the people I have met, there are only a few occasions that I can positively say that I’ve met someone truly special. When I stepped into Mike and Cheryl Reagan’s home, I knew immediately I had entered the realm of someone truly great.
Mike Reagan’s decades-long journey into his life’s work began in Seattle, Washington. Mike grew up in an abusive family situation and as the oldest child was forced into a caretaker role–which made him an angry young man. In 1966 Mike’s high school friend Bill Denhoff was Killed In Action in Vietnam, and Mike and three of his close neighborhood friends decided to join the military to avenge Bill’s death. Two joined the army, and two joined the Marines.
In an interview for Joe Galloway’s last book, They Were Soldiers, as a reflection of his troubled childhood Mike said, “To tell the truth, I thought that living in Vietnam might actually be less dangerous than where I lived.” Mike joined the Marine Corps and after graduation from boot camp, became a rifleman assigned to the “Thundering Third,” Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, 4th Marines. Mike deployed to Con Thien, Vietnam in the summer of 1967. Con Thien was a short distance from the anything-but-Demilitarized Zone along the border of North and South Vietnam. Mike suddenly transitioned from a Marine out of basic training certain of his warfighting skills to a man just looking to survive each second. His commanders, already experienced in the ways of unconventional war, gave him the advice he needed to stay alive every day.
Each day in Mike Reagan’s deployment he grew closer to his brother Marines. This included his Captain, Ned LeRoy, Peder Armstrong whom he knew from high school, Dan King, and Corpsmen Tony “Doc” Milazzo and John “Doc” Nunn. One young man, in particular, became a close friend to all the members of Kilo Company. This was Vincent Benore Santaniello, an 18-year-old second-generation Italian immigrant from the New York City borough of Queens. Vinnie was the supply driver for Kilo Company, and his outgoing personality and easygoing style endeared him to the men with whom he served. Vinnie could easily have stayed out of the shit as an asthma-suffering supply driver, but he was unafraid to fight and often joined in combat alongside the men he served with. Vinnie’s nature led to his being called “Saint.” This was a term of endearment for his goodness, his dedication to the Marines, his love of his family back at home, his leadership skills, and a play on his last name.
From August through the end of 1967 the men of Kilo Company were involved in several “Tit for Tat” battles with the North Vietnamese. One such battle occurred when the unit was tasked to retake a hill they had taken just a couple of months before and then ordered to abandon. Mike Reagan took out a key machine gun emplacement with a deadly uphill grenade throw from his talent-laden right hand. The Kilo Company Marines remained on station in Con Thien until early March 1968, and then they were moved to regional headquarters in Cam Lo. It was supposed to be a safer location than their assignment in Con Thien.
On March 28, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army staged a rare daytime attack on the men of Kilo Company. Mike Reagan’s high school friend Peder Armstrong was instantly killed. The beloved Vinnie Santaniello was working underneath his jeep to repair it. The jeep engine was at full throttle loud, and Saint never heard the warning sounds of the incoming mortar rounds hitting the launch tubes and didn’t take cover. Saint was mortally wounded, and his friend Mike Reagan held his dying comrade in his arms as Docs Milazzo and Nunn furiously worked to stanch the inevitable. Knowing he wasn’t going to make it, Vinnie Santaniello told Mike to relay his love for his family back at home. And then the Saint, the most beloved Marine in Kilo Company, looked directly into Mike Reagan’s eyes and said, “Mike, I just want to go home…” and died. “I wore his blood for two weeks afterward,” said Mike. “I was supposed to die that day.” The memory of that life-changing moment would haunt Michael Gerald Reagan for decades.
Upon his return to the states two weeks later, 21-year-old Mike Reagan came back as an angry and hurting young man. In 1968 not only was PTSD not clearly understood but everywhere returning GIs came back into the country there were protestors waiting to yell at the veterans and spit on them. Mike always had a talent for art and had even done drawings during deployment to mentally take him to a better place. He was looking for somewhere to fit in after feeling isolated and like he didn’t belong anywhere. Finally, Mike Reagan was accepted as a student at Seattle’s Burnley School of Art. Mike had never been a stellar student in high school but found a place to belong and fit in with the program at Burnley. He completed the three-year program and headed off to the world of work.
A confluence of events set Mike up for a career path of success and financial stability. As he realized how difficult it would be to achieve success as a freelancer, an opportunity arose that provided him with the steady income he needed. A retired Marine Corps officer who was himself a veteran recognized that Mike had talent and needed stability after a rocky combat experience. The retired officer offered Mike a job doing graphics with the Seattle school system, a position he parlayed into a long-term career doing graphics at the University of Washington.
In the meantime, Mike continued to work on his freelance art career, where he earned wide acclaim for his work. His drawings appeared in national magazines, where Mike became known as the artist to the stars. He drew the portraits of six sitting US Presidents and their first ladies, three prime ministers, a Pope who is now a saint, many prominent actors, and actresses, as well as athletes and entertainers. Mike began to ask his subjects to sign blank canvasses, and then he would do an additional portrait that he donated to charities to help them raise money. Actors such as Harrison Ford helped to raise millions of dollars for various charitable organizations. In 2003 one of the local TV stations did a short segment on Mike that was picked up by the national news and appeared on stations nationwide. Mike’s sparky little comment about being a Marine and drawing Playboy Bunnies sent the 5-minute video segment across the US and shown by all the network affiliates.
Mike Reagan’s TV video segment caught the attention of Charise Johnson, the Gold Star wife of a corpsman who lost his life in Iraq. She contacted Mike and asked him if he could do a portrait of her husband, HM3 Michael Vann Johnson. Mike agreed, and Charise asked how much he would charge. Mike wrote Charise back and told her, “I’m a Vietnam combat veteran. I can’t possibly charge you, so let me do the drawing for you for free.” Mike completed the work and sent the portrait to Charise. The stunning image was so lifelike she looked at the picture of her husband and had a conversation with him as if he was in front of her. For the first time in a year, Charise Johnson was able to sleep through the night. Soon the word got out and Mike Reagan was taking orders for more fallen soldiers. With a hundred portraits Mike began to realize that the project was growing in importance; punctuated by a visit from a Gold Star mom who flew out from the east coast just to thank Mike for drawing her son. At the end of their brief meeting, she gave Mike an emotional hug as he had never known before. “I realized that she wasn’t just hugging me. She was hugging her son.” Mike understood that this was a message from God that he was on the right path in his life.
Michael Reagan and his wife Cheryl came to the decision to devote themselves completely to the task of drawing for free every service member who lost their life in Iraq and Afghanistan whose family requested a portrait. Cheryl said to Mike, “How are we going to do this financially?” Mike replied, “We will put this in God’s hands…” So in 2006 Mike retired from his job at the University of Washington and got to work drawing fallen service members ten to twelve hours a day every day. With every portrait, the stories of the service members began to accumulate as well. Mike got to know them all. He has been deeply personally affected by the experience and has been changed in ways that he could never see as a 21-year-old Marine with bloody hands in Cam Lo, Vietnam. Four decades later Michael Gerald Reagan came to the realization that the project, called “The Fallen Heroes Project” was his destiny.
Every portrait Mike did brought peace and healing to the family members who got his work. A little girl who lost her father had nightmares every night for two years. Mike’s drawing of her dad allowed her to sleep through the night and eventually live a life as a regular teenager and ultimately graduate from college. Another Gold Star wife who was expecting the couple’s first child after her husband’s death gave birth with Mike’s portrait in the delivery room.
Word continued to spread about Mike’s work, and soon he was getting requests from the families of service members from other countries who had lost men in the Global War On Terror. In 2010 Mike did his first portrait of a British soldier lost in the fighting. The biggest event occurred when Mike was asked to draw portraits of Polish soldiers who sacrificed their lives working with Americans. The Polish special forces, called the Grom, or storm, had been working with American Special Forces members and lost 66 men in combat. Local Seattle area veteran Mike Michalak heard Mike Reagan talk at a VFW about the Fallen Heroes Project, and he went to his sister who was a physician in the Polish Army. Word spread to the highest levels of the Polish government, and Mike got a formal request to do the portraits of all 66 Polish soldiers lost in the GWOT.
Mike asked for only two conditions: First that the pictures submitted for the portraits of the soldiers come from the families of the fallen; and second, that the portraits be presented to the families in a dignified manner. As a result of Mike’s request, the Polish government created a special day, the National Remembrance Day of Fallen Soldiers on December 21st. A special presentation was made in Warsaw, with the ceremony held at the hall of military heroes. Each portrait was walked individually into the hall with the family members. The simple act of drawing the portraits of 66 men in pencil created a bridge between the people of the two nations. For the first time, the people of Poland could see that we care about their nation’s sacrifice in the GWOT. For his efforts on behalf of the Polish nation, Mike Reagan was presented with the Polish Army Medal along with Mike Michalak in June 2018.
Mike Reagan’s journey has taken him back to the primal origins of his work, Vinnie Santaniello. Vinnie had a very close relationship with his sister, Lilly, and during his deployment, he wrote many handwritten letters to her. He had scheduled leave to be at her wedding in August 1968, but sadly never made it. His last letter to his beloved sister was recovered from his body and delivered to her back at home in Queens, New York. Lilly’s marriage resulted in the birth of his nephew Ralph Morales, who grew up never knowing the story of his uncle’s life and death in Vietnam. In 2002 Ralph’s mom died, and when he went through her possessions, he discovered his uncle’s letters hidden away and out of sight for decades. As Ralph went through the letters he learned a lot about his uncle, but there were so many questions about the Saint’s time in Vietnam that were gnawing at his soul.
After many years of fruitless searching for any Marines who had been with Vinnie Santaniello in Vietnam, a friend of Ralph’s called him from Los Angeles and told him about an artist and Vietnam veteran from Washington State he had seen on TV. Ralph Morales reached out to Mike Reagan, and indeed it was Mike who was with the Saint when he died. It led to an emotional meeting between the two men in April 2015. It was an incredible spiritual conversation. Mike told Ralph, “Your uncle dying in my arms is why I’m doing these portraits…” Mike told Ralph that both Docs Milazzo and Nunn still feel guilty about his uncle’s loss decades afterward.
And Mike told Ralph, “I was 19 years old and didn’t realize what Vinnie was giving to me.” In the time since Vinnie’s death Mike was not only giving back the Gold Star families the spirit of their loved ones, but he was also regaining his own soul lost decades before in Cam Lo. Mike Reagan presented the portrait of Vincent Benore Santaniello to his nephew Ralph Morales, a copy of which is looking over Mike’s shoulder and stays with him when he sits at his drawing table in his home. “I still feel Vinnie in my arms now,” says Mike. “There are a lot of great artists, but none of them held Vinnie…”
When I sat with Mike Reagan in his studio, he told me, “When I came home from Vietnam, I knew I had this debt; I just didn’t know what it was for… I’m trying to pay back my friends and trying not to forget them… This is my destiny.” Mike sits at his drawing table in his home studio and labors intensively with his portraits all drawn in pencil. “I use pencils because I’m writing a story,” he says. Every story is heartbreaking. “Every one of my pencils ends up telling a story of someone who died for me—died for all of us.” Mike studies the photographs sent to him by the gold star families, and then when he has learned what the fallen heroes want to tell him he starts to draw. Each portrait takes about 6 to 8 hours to complete. And when he has completed it, the fallen service member’s portrait has a message. “It’s the message he wants to take home to his family.” And Mike sends the portraits home.
Mike Reagan’s artwork has brought an incalculable amount of healing to the families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been recognized for his work, but he stresses to all who talk to him that his work isn’t about him. In 2016 in front of a televised national audience at the USAA convention Mike Reagan reached into his pocket and pulled out the coin of posthumous Medal Of Honor awardee Jared Monti. It was given to him by his recently deceased dad, Paul Monti. To an audience of 35,000 people, Mike Reagan told them that the coin serves him as a reminder of what all the fallen service members have given—the gift of their lives. Mike concluded, “I’ve been carrying this coin since the day I received it… It’s your duty as recipients of their gift to never forget. And I will never forget any of these people.”
Michael Gerald Reagan continues to respond to the requests of gold star family members who wish to have their loved ones’ portraits done. To date, he has completed well over 8,000 portraits of fallen service members, and first responders, as well as a couple of special cases. “As long as I’m breathing, I’m drawing!” he says. Mike takes no money for his work, and his foundation helps to defray the cost of his art supplies, framing, and delivery costs for his portraits. Ralph Morales, who went on to write a deeply moving book about his uncle, said of Mike Reagan’s quest, “Vinnie’s death has brought peace, love, closure, understanding, dignity, and honor to so many people.” As I departed from Mike’s house he told me, “This isn’t about art, it’s about love… And now I understand better what love is.”
Mike Reagan continues to draw portraits of the service members we have lost in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as first responders lost in the line of duty. You can help to support his efforts by donating to his 501c3 foundation here. All donations are used for the purchase of art supplies, portrait framing, and delivery to the Gold Star family members:
Ralph Morales deeply moving book about his uncle: A Saint’s Letters From the Depths of Hell.
Steve Lewis has been an educator and an athletic coach for nearly 30 years. For much of that time, he was a successful high school and college football coach in Connecticut. After the events of 9-11-01, many of Steve’s former athletes joined the military. In the succeeding years, they didn’t return the same way they went out, and this led Steve to become interested in veteran affairs. In 2017 he conducted the first annual Comfort Walk, a 70-mile 3-day trek from Manchester CT to Providence RI on Memorial Day Weekend to raise awareness of veterans’ mental health issues. In 2017 Steve also assisted the veterans of the 1-24th Infantry Regiment in their Walk Of Life.
Steve regularly participates in the CT Run For The Fallen and has helped out in other veteran events and presentations including hosting a veteran’s assembly and classroom visit to his school. A civilian, Steve comes from a military family as the son of USMA 1952 and grandson November 1918. He has previously authored articles on fisheries issues and is looking forward to contributing his writing talents to military matters and veterans’ advocacy.