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updated: 1/31/2011 6:40 PM

Elk Grove hospital hosts faces of those lost to war on terror

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  • Sally Kolb of Rolling Meadows views "Portrait of a Soldier" at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village.

    Sally Kolb of Rolling Meadows views "Portrait of a Soldier" at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

By Eileen O. Daday

A sense of reverence permeates the main hallway in Alexian Brothers Medical Center's Eberle Building, and not just because it leads to the chapel.

Last week, officials hung 250 hand-sketched portraits of Illinois soldiers killed in the war on terror. "Portrait of a Soldier," a traveling exhibit, will remain on display at the Elk Grove hospital until Oct. 15.

"You hear the statistics all the time about the numbers of troops killed, but this puts a face to it," said John Werrbach, Alexian Brothers Medical Center CEO. "What a sacrifice they made for our country."

Like many hospital visitors, Walt Pretkelis of Elk Grove Village walked through the hallway slowly on Thursday, looking at the faces and reading their brief descriptions.

"It reminds me of when I was in Vietnam and the friends I lost," Pretkelis said. "It's just heartbreaking to see such young men lose their lives."

The images include portraits of men and women, including the four Elk Grove Village residents killed in Iraq and Afghanistan between April 2004 and March 2005, which prompted Alexian officials to reach out to military families in the area.

"This highlights the military presence in our community," Werrbach added. "It's a community that is still trying to heal."

Artist Cameron Schilling, of downstate Mattoon, drew the first portrait in 2004, after Army Spc. Charles Neeley, also of Mattoon, was killed in Iraq. He gave the portrait to Neeley's parents, and the next year decided to draw a portrait of every Illinois service member lost during the war on terror.

Alberto Velasco, a Marine veteran from Roselle who served two tours in Iraq, visited the exhibit last week.

"My first thought was of the eight Marines in my battalion that were lost," Velasco said. "Seeing the portraits made a lasting impression on me. Now I want to bring my family."

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's office asked hospital officials if they would host the exhibit. It debuted in 2006 at the Thompson Center in Chicago, and since then has moved to public libraries, colleges, courthouses and museums across the state, including the Des Plaines and Schaumburg public libraries last year.

Alexian Brothers Medical Center is the first hospital to mount the display, and host it for more than one month.

Br. Valentino Bianco, one of the Alexian Brothers who serves as facilities designer for the health system, worked for four hours with another staff member to hang the exhibit.

"I nearly cried when I came across this one," Bianco said, pointing to a youthful looking 19-year old Sgt. Gerrick D. Smith, who died last year in Afghanistan. "He's just a boy."

The exhibit was hung in time for a blessing ceremony for Gold Star Mothers and military families held last week. It was part of the hospital's ongoing veterans' initiative, which now has resulted in a comprehensive Vet Center located on the Alexian Brothers Medical Center campus.

What began in 2005 with a symposium for military families, now offers multiple services that range from helping veterans obtain their benefits, to treating post traumatic stress syndrome and brain injury.