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Burned GI’s portrait to show at Smithsonian

A retired soldier who was severely burned in Iraq has gotten used to stares. Now people will be looking at his face in a very different way: As a life-sized oil painting at the Smithsonian Institution.
Image: Richard Yarosh
This oil portrait of retired Army Sgt. Richard Yarosh, painted by Matthew Mitchell, is a finalist in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Matthew Mitchell / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Retired Army Sgt. Richard Yarosh has gotten used to the stares. His face is blanketed in knotty scar tissue. His nose tip is missing. His ears are gone, as is part of his right leg. His fingers are permanently bent and rigid.

All is the result of an explosion in Iraq that doused him in fuel and fire three years ago.

"I know people are curious," he said. "They'll stop in their tracks and look. I guess I can understand. I probably would have stared, too."

Soon, a lot more people will be staring at Yarosh's face but in a very different way: A life-sized oil painting of him will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington later this month. The portrait, by Matthew Mitchell, is a finalist in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which recognizes modern portraiture at the gallery known for its collection of notable Americans.

The gallery received more than 3,300 entries. Many are less conventional portraits, including video and photos, but others, like that of Yarosh, draw strength from the traditional head-and-shoulders composition, said curator Brandon Fortune.

‘Gravity of the presentation’
Mitchell's use of the style — historically reserved for nobility, a high-ranking military officer or a president, not a disfigured soldier in an Army T-shirt — democratizes such paintings, Fortune said.

"The portrait is clearly meant to honor him. I think that contributes to the gravity of the presentation," she said.

The Yarosh painting is part of a series of portraits by Mitchell begun four years ago, when he set out to paint 100 military personnel or others who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. With 30 completed so far, each of the portraits is 26-by-30 inches with roughly the same head-and-shoulders framing. Yarosh's portrait is No. 23.

"There's a huge amount of people who have been deeply touched by these wars in America, and these wars are obviously some of the most formative events in the world," said Mitchell. "Yet, most people in America don't need to pay attention to these wars whatsoever. They don't feel compelled."

The 38-year-old Mitchell, of Amherst, Massachusetts, asks each of his subjects to write a brief description of his or her experience to go with the portraits. Yarosh's includes the line: "That day started the same as every other day, but that day has never ended."

The day was Sept. 1, 2006, and Yarosh was manning the turret of a Bradley assault vehicle, patrolling a road that he'd been on "a million times." Only this time, the vehicle hit an explosive device. The fuel tank blew, and Yarosh was instantly covered in flames.

He took a blind jump from the top of the vehicle, breaking his leg and severing an artery that would eventually force an amputation. He rolled around in the dirt, but with so much fuel, he couldn't get the fire out. He lay there, next to the burning vehicle, and gave up.

"I wasn't in pain. I could accept the fact that I was going to go. This was how the Lord would take me," he said.

But for reasons he still can't explain, Yarosh rolled to his right one more time and suddenly fell into a canal, where the flames were extinguished. Fellow soldiers pulled him from the water even as his body armor disintegrated into ash, and he survived. One of the other soldiers in the vehicle did not; Sgt. Luis Montes died about a week after the blast.

Yarosh, now 27, spent more than two years in full-time treatment and rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center, home of the Army's only burn unit. A public affairs officer who had been contacted by Mitchell connected the two men.

Yarosh, who moved back to Windsor, New York, after his retirement in January, concedes he was a little uneasy when he sat for the portrait because he worried about how an artist, likely to be more liberal, might depict him. Still, Yarosh agreed because he thought having his portrait done would be "super cool."

He sat for sessions over two days. Mitchell developed the basic outline during the sittings and took photos and video to complete the portrait later.

The artist, who makes his living in part by doing traditional commission work, said Yarosh's injuries left the soldier without the typical landmarks — nose, ears and other features — that help an artist see a person's character.

But somehow, "I felt it was done when I felt I could see his personality. Still, that's a big mystery to me. I don't know how it happens," he said.

Yarosh was astonished when he saw the completed portrait.

"It was perfect. I couldn't believe that he captured me," he said. "It captures my pride. I'm proud of the way I look. I'm proud of the reason for the way I look."

The winner of the competition will be announced on Oct. 22, with a top-prize of $25,000 and the opportunity to do a commissioned work for the gallery's permanent collection. The exhibit of 49 finalists, including Yarosh's portrait, opens on Oct. 23 and will be on display until August.