Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
José G. Acosta could easily represent the man Toby Keith sings of in “American Soldier:” He doesn't do it for the money, nor for glory, he just does it anyway.
Acosta – a Navy chief and disabled veteran – has chosen to dedicate his gift as an artist to creating charcoal renderings of the men and women killed while in military service to their country.
At a convention for Gold Star and Blue Star Mothers last year in Louisiana, he told the audience, “You might forget who I am, you might not remember my name, but I promise I will never forget any of you, and I won't forget your children, your loved ones, your wives.”
Agreeing to an interview with the Jacksonville Daily Progress, the Orlando, Fla., resident asked only that the focus be on the fallen and their families.
He has set up a Facebook page (José Garcia Acosta), where he quietly posts artwork and poetry that focuses on the fallen and their families; it is where viewers can see among his photo albums images of “Clouds of Heroes,” panels filled with the faces of the fallen as a reminder for the country to not forget who the true heroes are.
“They should remember that the freedom they are able to have today is something that is (from someone whose blood has been) spilled,” Acosta said. “It's important to remember that these people didn't just disappear. They died serving their country, serving us … maybe they'll remember these heroes and every time they see the flag, they will salute it in honor of the ones who passed on protecting them.”
The idea for the “Clouds of Heroes” collection – there are seven panels in all, the last one still being completed – came about about two years ago.
A Gold Star Mom who had been following his Facebook page contacted him to let Acosta know she would be traveling to a fallen heroes dedication in Dade City, Fla., and wanted to meet him.
“She was going to come to my art show to look at my paintings, and I surprised her by doing a painting of her son,” he said, recalling how her response made him think about a canvas that would include other fallen heroes, whose families granted their permission.
“What happened was that one Gold Star Mom told another, who told another, and the phone calls kept coming in. The requests kept coming in,” he said. “And I made it a standard that every person who is (on these panels), I don't look for them or search them out by name – everyone on there is at the request of a parent, of a family, and I do this out of respect for the privacy of those families.”
The requests “are so personal – sometimes I'll get one a week, while the other day I had four in that one day. Some of the mothers who come to my website (are) sometimes afraid to ask, or don't know how to ask” that their child be placed on the canvas, he said.
Sincere gratitude for remembering their loved one seems to be the most common response from the these moms, though the one phone call that really stands out is the conversation with the father of a young man who was killed in action.
He contacted Acosta, explaining how their son's death had hit the couple hard, and that his wife really hadn't slept since being contacted about their child's death nearly six months before.
“He had the print I sent them framed and (hung) in their bedroom,” Acosta recalled. “He said when he woke up the next morning, his wife was asleep, that she had slept through the whole night. And he had asked her if she ever woke up during that time, and she did, once. 'She said when she did, she looked up on the wall and saw our son, and knew he was okay now, that he's with everybody else.'”
And this is why he dedicates his artistic gift to projects like “Clouds of Heroes”: He wants the families left behind to know that their loved ones are remembered outside their own circle.
“The love that these parents have for their children isn't bound by death or life,” he said, adding that when they contact him, he requests a photo that best represents their loved one and all they are able to share about him or her because “I want to capture the person.”
The “Clouds of Heroes” project is an open-ended one, and Acosta vows to paint every last hero to keep their memories alive by helping Americans “to see what the cost of war is.
“The news is not forgetting (about these heroes) – the child who died first in the war, he's an important one (because he was first). But so is the one who died this week,” he said.
Acosta said the project also honors the families of fallen, because “every hero is a reflection of the family who created him,” he said. “And the suffering of that family lasts forever (when someone dies in service).”
As part of the project, Acosta writes families, using the voice of their loved one to pass along words of comfort and courage.
One poignant letter – written to my brother and his wife, whose son was killed while serving in Iraq seven years ago – encouraged the family to keep the faith.
“Mom … listen to the thunder … it is us marching in heaven … the lightning is our spirits crossing the skies … the rain … Mom … the rain … that’s our tears falling, because we miss you too, but don’t worry … we shall meet again. But no hurry … you live life fully and everyday be happy. I will be waiting for you.
“I love you MOM … gotta go … we hear trumpets, perhaps another hero ….”
Recently, Acosta posted on his Facebook page the reason why he does what he does.
“I am a Navy Chief and I know the price of freedom. I see it in the falling tears of families. I hear it in the breaking voice of a father, mother or sister that called me on the phone asking if I could add their hero. I PROMISE YOU THIS … 'til my last breath on this earth … I SHALL do all I can to ensure they are not forgotten.”