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Combat artist joins new battle

Flying over the Delaware coast after a stint in Afghanistan, Stewart Wavell-Smith's thoughts turned to the casket in the C-17.

Inside was the body of a soldier killed in Operation Enduring Freedom. Stark war images appeared in his head.

"I felt a terrible sense of loss," Wavell-Smith, a distinguished combat artist, recalled. "I felt I had to say something for giving his all."

He did. Nineteen months later, he and a small group of volunteers working in a Palm Springs, Calif., hangar finished a patriotic mural honoring the men and women killed during the country's war on terrorism.

They hope the work will inspire people to donate money to a fund benefiting the families of about 600 U.S. combat soldiers killed since late 2001.

During an upbeat ceremony Friday afternoon, the 8-by-28-foot work was unveiled in the main hallway of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. The location, which one officer called "the Main Street for CentCom," guarantees the mural constant exposure.

Speaking to several dozen guests in the packed hallway, CentCom Commander Gen. John Abizaid called the brightly lit painting a "beautiful mural."

"It shows the dignity and the danger of our work abroad," Abizaid said.

The mural depicts 25 separate military scenes, emphasizing soldiers winning over the hearts and minds of the Afghans. In one, a soldier in full gear gives candy to an unsure Pashtun child. In another, locals look on gleefully as a soldier wrestles a robust Afghan man. (The tribesman won two of three matches, Wavell-Smith said.)

Underscoring the mural's optimism, planes and helicopters soar through blue skies over the dry Afghan landscape, livened up by the bright colors of a large American flag.

However, Wavell-Smith also included grimmer images of soldiers' graves and a flag-draped casket.

CentCom is clearly glad to have the work. Throughout the week, many CentCom personnel signed the backs of the individual panels when given the opportunity, Army Maj. Dave Farlow said.

The canvas over the mural fell earlier than planned, drawing chuckles from the guests, among them Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. Then Abizaid and Wavell-Smith engaged in playful banter about how long the artist actually spent in Afghanistan.

But when he followed Abizaid at the podium, Wavell-Smith turned to a serious topic for the painters and their supporters: the need to increase benefits for the families of fallen soldiers.

Many soldiers don't pay into the life insurance system, said Daniel Espensen, president of the nonprofit Enduring Freedom K.I.A. (Killed In Action) Fund. When they die, all their loved ones receive is a small death benefit from the government.

The fund has raised about $100,000, and just added a board member with strong corporate connections, Espensen said. The fund has given out cash benefits of $1,000 to $3,000. But its managers intend to push for a more "respectable" death benefit from the government, he said, around $250,000.

Wavell-Smith, a native Englishman who first served as a combat artist during the Vietnam War, said it's unfair that relatives of soldiers killed during Enduring Freedom should receive much less than families of 9/11 victims.

The fund is taking donations and is selling 15-by-36-inch color posters of the mural that start at $150. Wavell-Smith urged Abizaid to sign some of them.

The fund also got a boost from former CentCom commander retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who wrote a letter supporting the effort.

"We need to continue to do this," Wavell-Smith said of the fundraising effort.

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