Each piece of Austin Waggoner’s Honor the Fallen Project starts as a blank, 15-inch-by-24-inch sheet of aluminum.
First, Waggoner sands down the surface, ridding it of any imperfections and preparing it for its uniform coat of black spray paint.
Next, he heats the metal, curing and hardening the paint.
Then he spends around 40 hours engraving the sheet with hundreds of dots, using a Dremel tool, forming the face of a fallen military veteran and their commendations. Waggoner tries new techniques and styles on each one, ensuring that no two have a similar design.
The finished piece of art goes to the loved ones of the service member at no cost.
“I’ve always been drawn to doing memorials because of my career in the military,” said Waggoner, 43, an Army field artillery soldier and veteran of almost 18 years. “This is my way of giving back to those who served, as well as hopefully finding a new purpose.”
Waggoner said he’d been searching for that new purpose since he was medically discharged from the Army in 2013, partly due to a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, and moved to Spokane with his wife, Katrin.
Waggoner’s deployments include Korea, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, where he encountered heavy combat in 2011 and 2012.
“It’s a hard transition coming out of the military,” said Waggoner, who grew up in Walla Walla and enlisted in 1995.
He worked for local tattoo shops for a couple of years when he moved to Spokane, continuing the side job he’d had for most of his military career. He had started offering free memorial tattoos to veterans in 2012, but few took him up on his offer.
Strained by day-to-day stress and tired of reproducing tattoos from social media, Waggoner enrolled in the automotive technology program at Spokane Community College.
Then about three years ago, during automotive schooling, Waggoner’s passion caught fire after seeing a Facebook photo of a truck custom engraved by Hanro Studios’ Hank Robinson, a fellow Army veteran who started the Phoenix-based business in 2012.
The next day Waggoner bought a Dremel. His first project was engraving a tool box with floral scroll patterns. This past summer, he spent around 400 hours engraving the Volkswagen Beetle he built and chemically rusted.
“I put on my headphones and I will sit down and engrave all day,” said Waggoner, who added that most days he works for close to 12 hours.
Around mid-September he started an engraving of a friend’s car that was involved in a traffic accident. The collision put his friend in the hospital. The depiction of the car gave Waggoner the confidence to push forward on his memorial project, he said.
Waggoner said he personally knows of around 60 service members who have died in combat, by suicide or other causes, and had been mulling ways to honor them for years.
So earlier this fall, when he had an extra sheet of aluminum to experiment with, Waggoner put out a call on social media for veterans to submit photos of service members who have died.
A man Waggoner served with, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Bray, was among the initial nominations.
Bray was 37 when he took his own life in 2018. He deployed to an area of Afghanistan near Waggoner in 2011.
“He’s still a hard one to talk about, because a lot of us coming back, our PTSD does involve the thoughts of suicide,” Waggoner said.
Close to 17 veterans died by suicide each day in 2017, about 1.5 times the rate for nonveteran adults, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Seeing somebody as strong and as great of a soldier and as amazing of a leader as he was decide to make that ultimate decision, it still makes me question things,” Waggoner said.
After Waggoner finished Bray’s portrait in mid-October, he started an engraving of Command Sgt. Maj. Martin Barreras, who first enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1983 and re-enlisted with the Army five years later to become a Ranger.
He was one of the leaders in a unit that helped rescue Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch in 2003 after she became a prisoner of war in Iraq.
Waggoner served under Barreras in 2013 at Fort Bliss. Barreras died at age 49 after he was shot in Afghanistan in 2014 when his unit came under attack.
“He was the epitome of what it meant to be a solider,” Waggoner said.
On Saturday, Waggoner presented to loved ones his most recent portraits — Stephen Rapier, a Vietnam veteran and Spokane Combat Vet Rider whom Waggoner met in 2014, and Nick Newby, an Idaho National Guardsman and son of Newby-ginnings of North Idaho Inc. founder Theresa Hart.
Rapier, 70, died in early October after a battle with cancer. Spc. Newby deployed to Baghdad in 2010 and was killed by a roadside bomb in July 2011, 10 months into his yearlong deployment.
“It still shocks me like it just happened,” said Hart, who founded Newby-ginnings in 2013, collecting items to donate to veterans.
Hart said Newby volunteered to deploy after he finished basic training. He joined the National Guard so he could pursue other career goals and serve his country, but was still eager to support his unit, Hart said.
“Nick was an amazing soldier,” Hart said. “If I ever talk to anyone, they know Nick had their back.”
Hart received Newby’s portrait alongside the Spokane Combat Vet Riders, who accepted Rapier’s portrait at Lone Wolf Harley-Davidson’s Military Appreciation Day. Waggoner was displaying the other memorials to Bray and Barreras; Newby-ginnings had a booth at the event on Saturday.
“It helps us know that our loved ones aren’t going to be forgotten — that eight years later people still remember,” Hart said. “We never want Nick forgotten.”
Similar to Newby-ginnings, Hart said she can see how Waggoner’s Honor the Fallen Project could quickly gain traction and grow into something much bigger.
“I know a lot of (Gold Star) families that would love to have (a portrait) and would appreciate that,” Hart said. Waggoner “probably has no idea how many lives he’s actually going to impact,” she said.
Waggoner said he has three more portraits to finish in November and already has 15 subjects lined up through the end of the year.
He said he’s contacted Community Colleges of Spokane to partner with students on a website where he could display the memorials and collect submissions. Waggoner said he hopes to gain sponsors through the site, offsetting the costs of labor and materials for the free memorials.
He also wants to deliver the memorials in person to each family, like how he plans to with the Barreras and Brays in Arizona and Texas, respectively.
“I’m hoping that this is the beginning,” Waggoner said. “I want the memorial work to be my legacy.”
Waggoner said his first calling was to be a soldier and serve his country, which he considers to be one of the greatest things a person can do. Given the chance to re-enlist, he said he couldn’t put his uniform back on fast enough.
“There’s a huge hole, and this (memorial project) is how I’m filling it now,” Waggoner said. “Being able to honor people who didn’t ask for it, being able to let the families know that their loss is felt by more than just them, and that they’re not forgotten — that’s my calling.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.