LAKEVILLE, Minn. -- All too often the true meaning of Independence Day gets lost in the grilling, games and fireworks.
But a Minnesota-born artist, Anita Miller, captures the spirit of sacrifice across every branch of the military and what it means to fight for the freedom of our country.
She spent nearly two years painting the "The Eyes of Freedom Memorial", which features eight life-size panels of fallen Ohio based Marines. It opens to the public in Lakeville on the Fourth of July.
"When you look into their eyes, it doesn't matter where they are from, because they are every man," said Miller, an artist out of Westerville, Ohio, but a native of Lakeville.
The memorial was on display for a private viewing at Best Buy headquarters in Richfield last week.
"It's a sense of loss, but it's an honor to have them all here with us, like this," said Best Buy's Chief Information Officer Jody Davids.
She invited the 23 fallen men into the halls of corporate headquarters, but one stands out from all the rest.
"I can stand here and I can look into his eyes, and in a sense he is here with me, in a way that I can't any place else. I can't in front of a photograph; I can't in front of a granite memorial with his name etched in stone. But I can standing right here, face to face. It's incredibly powerful ," she said, with tear filled eyes.
In the Eyes of Freedom Memorial, the star Marine with the half smile, is her son.
"It was one of those letters that says, "If you are reading this letter, than the worst has happened."
Summer of 2005 brought one of the highest death tolls of the Iraq War. Jody Davids was living in Dublin, Ohio when her son joined the Lima Company Marine Reserve unit based out of Columbus.
A single roadside explosion took Wes Davids, along with five others in the paintings. Twenty two Marines and one Navy corpsman died within that single summer.
"(Wesley Davids) and I were shoulder to shoulder and just dumb luck, the blast threw me from the vehicle, it hurt me badly but it didn't, didn't end my life, and she doesn't have a son anymore," said Cpl. Mike Strahle, who is now the director of The Eyes of Freedom Memorial
Survival gave Corporal Mike Strahle a new calling. He now carries his friends from combat zone to canvas, and will bring the traveling memorial to nearly 50 U.S. cities this year.
"I would say I try to keep up with them," he said. "It just keeps me close to the friends that I don't have anymore. Eight life-size panels. It brings the sacrifice that sometimes can be put at the back of their mind, it's putting it right here in front of their face."
At every glance, they are all perfect, in the eyes of Anita Miller. Her artwork has made her Lakeville's famed daughter and this Fourth of July, she's brought her sons home.
She's a mother who had no connection to the military, until the tragedy of Lima Company. She was heartbroken but didn't know how to help, until a vision she couldn't escape.
"Can't really call it a dream, because I was awake."And it wouldn't leave the front of my head," she said.
Life-size portraits required an addition on to her studio, and a meeting with every family, to capture the men just as they lived. The memorial debuted in the Ohio Statehouse in 2008 and since has begun traveling the country.
"One of the family members called me recently and said, you know this is alive, don't you? These paintings, they are living. They're breathing! And our sons are working through them, and they are still working on a mission."
They are still serving miles away from that cruel desert, sacrifice standing tall in the middle of a Minnesota main street salute.
"It's a gift of their life. And that's personal for all of us," she said.
A decision Jody Davids said her son made as a high schooler the day the planes hit the towers. In that final goodbye letter, he said he found the key to happiness.
"Live your life in a way you can be proud of everything you do. No regrets," he wrote, at only 19 years old.
For Davids, pride still lives through the memorial.
"It's about love and it's about sacrifice. It's not about states," she said.
You can see The Eyes of Freedom hosted by the Lakeville Yellow Ribbon during the city's Pan-O-Prog festival.
Old Ace Hardware building - 20851 Holyoke Avenue, Lakeville
- Wednesday, July 4: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
- Thursday, July 5: Noon-10 p.m.
- Friday, July 6: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Saturday, July 7: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. (closed during the Grand Parade)
Learn more at www.limacompanymemorial.org
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)