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‘Democracy comes with a cost’

The Portrait Soldier exhibit holding portraits every Illinois service member who has fallen during Global War Terror is being set

The Portrait of a Soldier exhibit holding portraits of every Illinois service member who has fallen during the Global War on Terror is being set up Friday, September 6, 2013, in the lobby of the Gail Borden Library. | Joe Cyganowski-For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 9, 2013 7:35PM

ELGIN — Sketches hung in the lobby of the Gail Borden Public Library Friday morning will remind patrons of The Big Read program — and of the ultimate sacrifice 199 Illinois residents have made while serving their country.

The drawings, reproduced on vinyl tapestries, are part of the traveling Portrait of a Soldier exhibit which renders military members from Illinois who have been killed on or since Sept. 11, 2001, in conflicts tied to combatting terrorism. Jose Ibarra and Andres Aguirre from the Illinois Governor’s Office drove the display from Chicago to Elgin in a minivan and took about a half hour to set it up in the atrium.

“This is an extremely important part of The Big Read and a pivotal point in the launch. It brings to the public’s consciousness that war comes at a tremendous cost,” Joyce Carrasco said.

Carrasco, the mother of four grown children, has a son and a daughter who are both currently serving in the military. She heads a chapter of the Blue Star Mothers, a support group for mothers and wives of soldiers, and a role which has seen her attending more than 30 funerals or visitations held for fallen soldiers from Illinois.

Carrasco first saw the exhibit at Navy Pier in Chicago last November as part of a Veterans Day commemoration. She personally asked Gov. Pat Quinn what it would take to have the portraits come to Elgin. That led to getting in touch with Erica Borggren, the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and others tied to the effort last December to begin the process of bringing the artwork to Elgin.

Freedom’s cost

Through contacts at the library, Carrasco learned of it applying for a Big Read grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The centerpiece of the effort is Tim O’Brien’s 1990 book, “The Things They Carried,” a collection of stories about a platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam.

As such, Carrasco felt the exhibit would feed into the project and inform viewers that people are still serving and dying defending this country.

“I remember that sacrifice through the pain I see in the eyes of the mothers of fallen soldiers I have met. It reminds that democracy comes with a cost,” Carrasco said.

Carrasco finally heard back Tuesday upon return from a church-related trip to Bolivia when the portraits would be visiting Elgin.

“It took a lot of perseverance,” Carrasco said of getting the art in the time frame it did.

According to the state’s Operation Homefront website, Cameron Schilling of Mattoon “drew the first portrait in August 2004, after Army SPC Charles Neeley, also of Mattoon, was killed in Iraq. Schilling gave the sketch to SPC Neeley’s parents to convey his sympathy for their loss. In October 2005, while a student at Eastern Illinois University, Schilling decided to draw a portrait of every Illinois service member who has fallen during the Global War on Terror.”

As of Sept. 5, according to the Department of Defense, 4,410 soldiers have died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, with 126 of those from Illinois; 66 have perished in Operation New Dawn with three of those from Illinois, and 2,263 have passed on during Operation Enduring Freedom, with 70 of those from Illinois.

The works on display are copies of the originals, which have been given to the next of kin of those portrayed. Carrasco said the works are put up in chronological order. If Schilling has yet to finish a particular sketch, that person is still represented with details of service, including when he or she was killed and hometown.

Locals sketched include Air Force Staff Sgt. Jacob Frazier, 24, of St. Charles who died March 29, 2003; Marine Cpl. Ryan Cummings, 22, of Streamwood, who died June 3, 2006; Army Staff Sgt. Maun Hardy III, 24, of East Dundee who died Nov. 8, 2007; Army Staff Sgt. Kevin D. Grieco, 35, of Bartlett, who died Oct. 27, 2008; and Army Sgt. Lukasz Saczek, 23, of Lake in the Hills, who died May 10, 2009.

A marked space has been set aside for the pending portrait of USMC Cpl. Alex Martinez, 21, of Elgin, who was killed April 5, 2012, during combat operations in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Martinez graduated from Larkin High School and enlisted in 2009. His father, Enrique Martinez of Huntley, had served in the Navy.

McEdward Dugas of Elgin happened to be in the library late Friday morning when the display was being put together and was looking for Martinez’s portrait.

“I knew his wife’s family. He was a good guy and always wanted to be a Marine,” Dugas said.

Events planned

Carrasco noted that Quinn often holds a press conference and invites families of the fallen soldiers who live in the area to attend unveilings of the exhibit. The governor won’t be in Elgin, but Carrasco said Borggren will. An Illinois native and U.S. Army veteran, Borggren previously served as a senior staff member for Army Gen. David H. Petraeus prior to taking her job with the state in 2011. The portraits exhibit will remain at the library until Sept. 18. From there the exhibit will head to Elgin Community College until Oct. 1.

The Big Read launch is Sunday at 2 p.m., and the project continues through Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Other programming and events related to it include a film and speaker series; The American Place Theatre’s Literature to Life performance of “The Things They Carried;” more than 25 book discussion groups; a Lao oral history project; and a special display of The Wall That Heals, a half-scale replica of the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which will be on display behind city hall downtown Sept. 19-22.

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