America Supports You: Student's Sketches Memorialize Sacrifices
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 4, 2006 While Americans are supporting troops serving overseas in a variety of ways, Cameron Schilling has found a way to memorialize the sacrifices of Illinois servicemembers who don't return home safely.
Cameron Schilling spent his free time for the better part of three months doing pencil sketches of 122 of Illinois' fallen servicemembers. This display appeared at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Working with Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn's office, Schilling has created pencil sketches of nearly all of Illinois' fallen servicemembers.
The 122 sketches and the "Portrait of a Soldier" organization may never have come about if not for the artist's experience with Army Spc. Charles Neeley's family.
Neeley was killed in August 2004, when his tractor-trailer rolled as he was trying to access a bridge in Iraq. He and Schilling shared the hometown of Mattoon, Ill., where Schilling's father owns the local funeral home.
"I helped my dad with the funeral arrangements, and I worked with the (Neeley) family the whole time," Schilling said. "So I got to see up close and personal how it affected them, see what they were going through."
Schilling wanted to do something to express his appreciation for what Neeley and his family had given up. So the Eastern Illinois University political science major called upon his artistic side and created a pencil sketch of his former high school classmate for the grieving family.
"I don't know exactly how much it ... impacted them, and I don't really know how to describe it, but I knew it helped," he said. "It just seemed so insignificant compared to what they were going through, but it helped."
Schilling didn't do any more sketches until 2005 when two more young men from his hometown died while serving in the military. Both were killed while on leave, but Schilling felt the same principles applied. "They were serving their country," he said.
It was then that he and Nathan Catt, a current classmate, started talking about how they could honor servicemembers who'd lost their lives fighting for freedom. It was then Schilling decided he wanted to broaden the scope of his sketching, and Portrait of a Soldier was created.
Catt designed and manages the Portrait a Soldier Web site.
Schilling was having a hard time contacting families through messages on memorial Web sites and didn't want to be so intrusive as to call their homes directly. It occurred to him to contact Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn's office, which runs the Operation Home Front Web site where Schilling had been getting photos of Illinois' fallen servicemembers.
Quinn had been looking for a Memorial Day presentation and asked Schilling if he thought he could complete sketches of all the Illinois servicemembers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the holiday weekend. Schilling agreed and spent the next three months sketching. Each image took anywhere from 90 minutes to two and a half hours. Lack of a photo good enough to sketch from prevented him from doing the last four, he said.
"While most college kids are going off to Cancun and Cabo or wherever it is, and partying up their spring breaks, Cameron stayed at home and drew the sketches," a spokesman for Quinn said. Schilling not only completed the task, but also arrived the night before the memorial display opened in Chicago to sketch Illinois' most recent hero.
The portraits will be displayed throughout the state before being presented to the families in September.
Not using official portrait photos alone to sketch from helped capture the uniqueness of each servicemember, Schilling said. Schilling said he feels very strongly about this because he didn't want just stoic shots of servicemembers in uniform.
"About 90 percent of my photos came from ... (Operation Home Front)," he said, referring to the "In Memoriam" section of the Web site run by Quinn's office. "(But) sometimes the families themselves would contact me and say, 'Could you please use this one in particular? I love my son's smile in this one,' or 'I love his look in this one.'"
Honoring those requests led to a positive reaction from the families, Schuller said. "A lot of (the families) were just overwhelmed by it, because it really captured the true essence of their loved one," he said.
Though Quinn has presented Schilling with both a Home Front Hero award and a lieutenant governor's coin, the young artist said isn't in this for the praise. With a deep military history - his grandfathers, an uncle and his father had served - he said he felt a certain pull to honor the servicemembers.
"I'm the first generation out of my family not to serve in the military," he said. "So it kind of felt like an obligation."
And though his program is a nonprofit organization, he's not looking for donations either. Because he's a college student, he said, the only thing this venture really costs him is time. He has had help from family and friends who he said have made everything possible.
His grandmother offered to pay for all the materials the sketches require, including matting and shrink-wrapping materials. His girlfriend also contributed her time to matting the sketches.
"I've just had support from so many different areas," Schilling said.
He added that a quote from Maine Sen. Susan Collins best sums up his feelings: "We can never fully repay the debt of our proud nation to those who have laid down their lives for our country. The best we can do is honor their memory, ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain, and help provide for their families."
"That, I think, kind of embodies what I was trying to do," Schilling said.