With every brush stroke, Columbia artist Suzy Shealy remembers her son Army Sgt. Joseph Derrick.
As Shealy paints scenes from Iraq, she places herself in her son’s combat boots in the dusty streets of Baghdad.
She stands watch at dusk as a Black Hawk helicopter flies on the horizon.
She patrols an Iraqi marketplace.
She overlooks a mosque in Mosul.
The paintings are based on photos that Shealy found in her son’s flash drive, sent home with his belongings after he was killed in September 2005 in Baghdad. They have become her therapy.
“I feel like it’s a gift from God to help me muddle through this,” she said.
Now, Shealy is sharing her gift with a Lexington family who lost a son in Iraq.
Shealy was commissioned to paint a portrait of Army Reserve Spc. Thomas Caughman, who was killed June 9, 2004, in Iraq at age 20.
Caughman’s portrait will be unveiled this afternoon during a ceremony to dedicate the new 81st Regional Support Command headquarters at Fort Jackson. The building will be named after Caughman, the unit’s first soldier to be killed in Iraq.
Shealy says she was honored to paint for another family experiencing the same grief.
“I look at it as a way of honoring not only Thomas but all the other men and women who have lost their lives over there. They are a family, and I never understood that until I lost Joseph.”
‘THEY JUST SPOKE TO ME’
On Sept. 23, 2005, Joseph Derrick, Shealy’s oldest child, was on his second tour of duty in Iraq with the 411th Military Police Company of Fort Hood, Texas.
Derrick’s company had been called to secure an area outside an eight-story building in Baghdad. Someone had tossed hand grenades off the roof. One had not detonated. The military police were securing the area while a bomb squad was called in.
As Derrick helped cordon off the area, a sniper’s bullet sliced through his neck, Shealy said. He was 25.
Shealy has visited her son’s fellow soldiers to learn the circumstances of his death. She can explain the grim details of blood transfusions and resuscitations in a steady voice.
“I just pray that he never knew what hit him,” she said.
After Derrick’s death, his belongings were mailed to Shealy from Iraq. That’s when she found the computer flash drive filled with hundreds of pictures.
Derrick had carried a digital camera to capture memories from Iraq and also had copied favorite pictures taken by other soldiers. He had asked his mother to mail the flash drive so he could store images from his tour.
It took weeks for the family to look through the photos, said Shealy, 53, who, with husband Cary, has two other adult children, William, 24, and Elizabeth, 22.
“When all these pictures started coming back, they just spoke to me,” Shealy said. “I wonder what he was thinking when he took the photo or if it was file share, why he thought it was important. He had told me he couldn’t wait to share the photos with me when he came home.”
Shealy had an artistic flair but had never tried oil painting. Inspired by a friend from church, she visited a studio and signed up for a class. There, in February 2006, she decided to paint scenes from her son’s camera.
Her first piece, titled “Nightwatch,” shows two soldiers’ silhouettes as the moon rises over the desert. She chose it because the moon always connected her to Derrick when he was deployed.
“A lot of times in the evening, I look up at the moon and ask the Lord to give my son a hug,” Shealy said. “Even when my son was alive in Iraq, even when he was on the other side of the world, he was still seeing the same moon.
“I can’t describe heaven, but I know that’s where my son is. In my mind, it’s on the other side of the moon.”
Since the “Nightwatch” piece, Shealy has painted four other pictures. Two are scenes from Iraq, and two include Derrick’s Army buddies.
One shows sunlight beaming down on a soldier standing in front of a battlefield memorial to a fallen comrade. The soldier is clutching his buddy’s dog tags. Shealy copied the image off a video of a memorial service held for her son in Iraq.
In another, a lone soldier sits in front of a bullet-riddled block wall. His head is lowered as he dials a cell phone. The painting is titled “Calling Home.”
Chris Woo, one of Derrick’s best friends from his military police company, is that soldier. At that moment, he was having problems getting a connection to call his family. He was trying to call before escorting a convoy through Baghdad.
Woo, who named his son Joseph after Derrick, says he was honored to be the subject of the painting.
“I was so happy she chose me,” said Woo, 25, who lives in California but still visits the Shealy family.
Shealy asks the soldiers’ permission before including them in a painting.
“It exposes them emotionally,” she said.
‘HER HEART WOULD DEFINITELY BE IN IT’
Shealy sells copies of the artwork online and sends the proceeds to charities. A soldier in Columbia who had seen her work recommended Shealy for the Caughman portrait. She submitted a proposal and was chosen by the Army and the family.
The two families had met when the Caughmans paid a visit to the Shealys to offer support after Derrick died. But Shealy didn’t realize she would be painting their son until she won the bid.
Jane Caughman was amazed when she learned Shealy had been selected.
“I knew her heart would definitely be in it,” Jane Caughman said. “God works in mysterious ways. I can’t wait to see it.”
The Caughmans have not seen the portrait so its details are secret. To create the painting, Shealy visited the Caughman home and studied photos of their son.
“I’ll know how well I’ve done by their reaction,” Shealy said. “I hope this portrait will bless his family and also bless all the men and women who will be working in the building.”
Shealy says painting honors her son’s memory, too.
“Joseph was all about encouraging others,” she said. “I’m trying to live honoring what Joseph would have done.”
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.