MILITARY MEMORIALS Artistry -- of wars and warriors

YOUNGSTOWN -- Ray Simon might be called a patriot with paint.
Widely known in the sports world for his tributes to giants of football, hockey and racing, Simon moved into military works, creating art to honor veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq.
His prints, sold in military bases around the world, tell an air-brushed, exquisitely detailed story of a war. Each comes with a die-cut oval, which allows buyers to personalize the work by slipping a photo inside of the oval.
Product line
He's taken the idea a step further, partnering with Wilbert Funeral Services Inc. to create a line of products intended to create a lasting memorial for the families of veterans. His work appears on prayer cards, candles, bookmarks, coffin caps, register books and service folders. Each piece carries a unique design honoring the deceased person's military service.
From those pieces has come Simon's latest venture, creating bronze mural pieces that are affixed to burial vaults, the concrete box that a coffin is placed in for burial. Simon's image for fallen soldiers in the Iraq war includes images of tanks in the desert and a smiling Iraqi girl holding an American flag.
Families of the deceased soldiers buy Simon's work from the funeral home, part of Simon's business arrangement with Wilbert. But Simon adds his own personal touch -- he sends a framed, personalized print to the family of each American soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, whether they buy the funeral package or not.
It's his gift to the families, a gift that's rooted in the 43-year-old Youngstown native's unabashed patriotism and pride in his father's military service in World War II.
"People thank me for this, and I say to them, 'No, thank your son, who fought for my freedom, my freedom to be here and to be able to paint,'" Simon said. "It's really all about freedom."
From his fourth-floor office in the Wick Building in downtown Youngstown, Simon and his staff of two monitor casualties in Iraq and send the framed works out to families quickly so that the image can be part of the funeral. At many funerals, Simon's art is propped up by the coffin, another way of honoring a fallen soldier.
Simon has received a number of letters from grateful and grieving family members, who often wonder why someone has given them such a unique gift. Typical is a letter from Dino Sturino, a Rice Lake, Wisc., father whose son, Paul, died near Mosul on Sept. 22, 2003.
"Words cannot express how I feel when I look at your painting ... Because I know that I will never give my son, Paul Sturino, one more hug, it is very comforting to look at the picture you painted because it reminds me that he died for a very noble cause. Paul was only 21 years and 8 days old. He was so young, and he had so much to live for. Why do our children always have to pay the highest price?
"I am very proud to display your painting and very saddened too. I will tell you this: I'm very proud of my son and all the other men and women who are serving this great country.
"I just wish I could hug him one more time."
Letters like this have great meaning to him, Simon said. So far, Ray Simon Art has sent personalized paintings to the families of 674 American soldiers in Iraq -- no strings attached, Simon said.
"Why would I paint cottages or trees if I can paint something to honor people? I have never done waterfalls or trees. Anybody can paint, and these paintings could be done by anyone. I want to tell a story. I want to honor these people, to paint what is in my heart."