Keeping Their Stories Alive

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SPONSORED CONTENT PRESENTED BY SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN

Oil-on-canvas paintings displayed at Hunter Army Airfield honor 25 Army Rangers killed in action

Photography courtesy of SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN

LIKE SO MANY SCAD STUDENTS, Mitchel Coffman (MFA, painting, 2006) fell in love with Savannah. The Illinois native-turned-New Yorker spent six years in Savannah getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in painting. He always hoped he would get to leave his mark on Savannah, to give something back to the city that meant so much to him.  

In late May, an Army Ranger battalion at Hunter Army Airfield unveiled the portraits of 25 men from that battalion who had been killed in action. Coffman painted each of them. Each oil-on-canvas painting took several days to sketch and paint. He used old photographs and met with many of the family members and friends of the fallen heroes to make sure he captured the personalities of each soldier in the paintings. Now they are all displayed in the Hall of Honor at Hunter Army Airfield.  

Coffman knew one of the men personally: Sgt. Robert Sanchez. The two men became close friends in 2006 while Coffman was a graduate painting student and assistant strength and conditioning coach at SCAD.

“We basically created a gym brotherhood overnight of art kids and Army Rangers. We didn’t have time to waste because of their deployment schedule and our demanding class load,” says Coffman. “Even though Rob was the only person I painted whom I knew, I can’t paint things I don’t care about, so I made sure to learn something about everyone I painted. These soldiers were fathers, brothers, sons and friends. These portraits help to never forget these soldiers and to keep their stories alive.”

Sanchez was killed during a combat operation in Afghanistan in 2009. Coffman painted Sanchez’s portrait a few years after his death to honor his friend. The painting caught the eye of a battalion commander and Coffman was asked to paint portraits of all the men.


“These soldiers were fathers, brothers, sons and friends. These portraits help to never forget these soldiers and to keep their stories alive.” — Mitchel Coffman, SCAD Savannah graduate, (MFA, painting, 2006) 


“The Hall of Honor memorial was a career full circle moment for me. As an undergrad student at SCAD, I took a painting class with a professor named Jorge Alvarez with whom I eventually forged a classic master-apprentice relationship,” says Coffman. “My situation was like one that you read about in a book. The year before I graduated from grad school, Alvarez passed away. I made him a promise before he died to carry on the painting legacy he passed on to me. He was a very established artist, having painted the massive mural in the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. Now Alvarez and I both have lasting, important pieces of work in the city where we met and worked together. Coming back to Savannah all these years later, for this reason, is a feeling that is so hard to put into words. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions.” 

“When I saw the painting, I started crying because it looked just like Etienne,” says Murphy. “Mitchel doesn’t just paint portraits; he gives his paintings life. It is an honor to know Mitchel, he is a very special person and I love him and what he does for Gold Star Families.”


“Mitchel doesn’t just paint portraits; he gives his paintings life. It is an honor to know Mitchel, he is a very special person, and I love him and what he does for Gold Star Families.”  — Sheila Mitchell-Murphy, mother of Specialist Etienne Murphy, who was killed in action


Coffman did not just leave his mark on the city; he now has a special bond with many of the families of the fallen, like the mother of Specialist Etienne Murphy, who was killed in action in Syria in 2017. Sheila Mitchell-Murphy attended the unveiling of the portraits last May.

“The most rewarding part of the project was the experience,” says Coffman. “I made sure to live in the moment as much as possible. I was welcomed into the special forces community and was able to forge new friendships and have experiences I never imagined possible. These are moments I will cherish forever.”

Coffman now lives in New York City. He has painted murals in Maryland and New York, including pieces for the Brooklyn Diner in Times Square and the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.