In 2005, a U.S. Marine reserves company based out of Lima, Ohio made headlines for their heroism during their deployment in Iraq. Artist Anita Miller was so moved by the stories of the company when she heard about them on television, she decided to honor the memory of the soldiers by reaching out to their families.
Three years of hard work later, the Eyes of Freedom memorial was born. Miller created eight oil paintings of the 23 members of the Lima Company who were killed in battle, first displayed at the capitol building in Columbus, Ohio. The traveling military memorial is now set to have its 300th event since touring began in 2012. The free event will run from Wednesday through July 21 at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie.
Mike Strahle was a member of the Lima Company and has served as executive director of the memorial since 2012. Strahle said he considers keeping the memory of his friends alive to be one of his most rewarding missions in life.
“I had the pleasure of serving alongside those 23 great men in the oil paintings,” he said. “I think the most amazing thing about all of this is that the memorial has become about more than just them. Everywhere we go, the artwork seems to rally communities and serve as a salute to service members everywhere.”
Miller turned over the paintings to the Lima Company Memorial seven years ago, but has continued to stay involved and contribute more of her artwork to the traveling exhibit. In 2017, she completed a two-year long clay sculpture project to draw attention to veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. The statue has since been bronzed and named “Silent Battle,” and has quickly become a popular part of the exhibit, according to Strahle.
“I think that mental health often gets lost in the discussion, so traveling with the statue became a big priority for us,” he said. “We saw this as a good way to address the mental health crisis in this country. Getting out there and talking about my experiences and speaking for the guys has helped me process my own demons. Not everyone has that outlet though, so we try to draw as much attention to the issue as we can.”
Strahle was severely injured in an explosion that killed six of his squad members. Two more of his close friends fell to enemy fire only days prior to the explosion. While he said he isn’t yet fully recovered from the trauma of the events, Strahle has found peace in keeping the memory of his brothers alive.
“It’s Anita’s artwork, but it’s their story,” he said. “Everywhere we go, people are moved by their story. I’m so proud of what we’ve done to celebrate military veterans past and present. What started as a few exhibits a year has grown now into our 300th event, and I couldn’t be happier. I can’t wait for the next 300.”
The memorial will enter downtown Erie via motorcycle escort on Tuesday, at 6 p.m. Strahle said while the event is free, any donation is appreciated to help continue the national tour that has now reached 35 states. Anyone who wishes to make a donation can do so on their website, limacompanymemorial.org.
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