Remembering the dead by carving their names on a cold, stone wall seemed too impersonal to U.S. Army Cpl. Poto Leifi.
Leifi, a California commercial artist-turned soldier, thought the U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq should be remembered full of life — and in a way that celebrated their patriotism.
After years of trial and error, Leifi makes posters in a vintage style that recalls the "Rosie the Riveter" and "Uncle Sam Wants You!" recruiting posters of World War II.
He calls his project "Freedom's on Me" — a patriotic twist on "Drinks are on me."
One of his first posters commemorated Marine Cpl. Mick Bekowsky, a 21-year-old from Concord, California, killed by a car bomb Sept. 6, 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq.
Bekowsky, who liked to race cars, hunt and fish, is shown bare-chested, beaming toward the sky, arm around a woman in a vintage bathing suit.
The poster dubs him "American Hero."
Leifi, a stocky man with black glasses who deployed to Afghanistan in May after a tour of Iraq, launched his project in 2006. But his story begins on 9/11.
When he arrived at work in southern California that day, everyone was glued to the TV.
"After that experience, work kind of lost its flavor," he said.
Leifi wanted to enlist, but his colleagues at work persuaded him that at age 34 he was too old.
Leifi stayed busy with his career, designing soles for Skechers, the trendy footwear company, and vintage jazz posters for an art publisher.
Then in 2005, U.S. soldiers at a coffee shop told him he wasn't too old to join.
Leifi visited a recruiter. A year later, at age 39, he was in basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Fired up about joining the military, Leifi searched the Internet for patriotic posters, but wasn't thrilled with what he saw.
"I'm a fan of the military posters created during World War II so with the help of some friends as models, I began to make new posters with that vintage-feel," Leifi writes on his website. He tried using the faces of fallen, and "when I did, the posters came to life in a very profound way and the project took a whole new direction."
Leifi is assigned as a multimedia illustrator to a military psychological operations unit in Kandahar province, a key front in the war in southern Afghanistan. He designs the posters after-hours, and has completed 10, using photographs and a computer software program for illustrators.
After he created the first few posters, word spread, especially through meetings of Gold Star Families, the military support organization. Other families commissioned posters, and he now has a backlog of 67 requests.
Leifi, who makes between $50 and $150 an hour as a civilian commercial artist, donates his time and talent. The families get seven free copies of each 41- by 51-centimeter (16- by 20-inch) poster. If they sign a release form, Leifi makes the posters available to others for $25 each, which helps recoup sprinting and shipping costs. He has sold 237 posters, mostly to friends, other relatives or colleagues of the fallen.
His work for the military ranges from leaflets dropped to Afghans by aircraft to posters that illustrate the dangers of roadside bombs or help the public distinguish Afghan border policemen from Afghan soldiers.
"His chain of command is fine with him working in his off-time," said Lt. Col. Web Wright, a military public affairs officer.
"He has provided a couple of the posters to the headquarters and they are displayed prominently. ... They really bring to life the personalities of the service members. The vintage appearance and the compelling story of how he developed the idea to do something for the families really draws you in."
Outside Leifi's office is a poster of Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Jacobson, 21, of Riviera Beach, Florida, who died Sept. 28, 2005 in Safwan, Iraq.
She is clad in a flattering, brown leather bomber jacket, her fists raised in a boxer's pose. A red flapping banner behind her says "Hit 'em hard 17th," a reference to her unit, the 17th Security Forces Squadron.
"I cherish her poster and what Freedom's on Me does for the families," said Sondra Millman, Jacobson's grandmother. "They bring light into what is a dark moment by bringing our heroes alive. Each and every poster tells a story by just looking it and you get an idea of what that hero was all about."
Army Spc. James Coon is drawn astride a motorcycle. Coon, 22, of Walnut Creek, California, received a Bronze Star for trying to save two victims of a roadside bombing attack in Iraq. On April 4, 2007 — 19 days after that blast — Coon was killed by sniper in Balad, Iraq. His family told Leifi that he was a good dancer and champion dart player who loved skydiving, sturgeon fishing and popping wheelies on his motorcycle.
His poster exclaims: "Freedom's on me. Enjoy the ride, Jimmy."