Mitchel Coffman is a professional artist and brings veterans stories to life through his paintings while making the fallen immortal, keeping their memories alive through his work. (Task & Purpose photo/Joshua Skovlund).

When an Army Ranger is killed in action, the 75th Ranger Regiment honors their legacy in many different awe-inspiring ways. That’s how Mitchel Coffman first connected with the close-knit community of Rangers, which led him to use his unique talents to honor fallen service members. 

“Man, those [Rangers] are just the dudes that do the fucking thing that they say they’re going to do,” Coffman said. “I always admired that about them.”

Coffman never really fit in throughout his school and art career. He came from a blue-collar family and transferred from community college to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). He and his close friend, Zach Walters, dealt with similar issues because of their love of sports. 

“We weren’t the norm. We both had an athletics background at art school. We had a hard enough time fitting in as it was because of that,” Coffman said. “The majority of my painting professors never liked me because of that. It was this uphill battle the entire time.”

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Coffman grew up playing sports and was a founding member of the SCAD Lacrosse team. He was the first assistant strength and conditioning coach in the athletics department during graduate school. Walters trained in an MMA gym and regularly rolled with some of the guys from 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and he asked Coffman if the Rangers could train with them at the gym. 

“Being someone that’s super duper competitive, I’m always trying to prove myself,” Coffman said. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah, man, bring those special forces [Ranger] guys, I want to see how we stack up against these dudes.’” 

The group forged a strong friendship early on, bonding over the grueling workouts, and going out together in Savannah’s busy downtown. But once Coffman graduated, he moved to New York City to continue his art career. Sgt. Roberto “Rob” Sanchez, one of the Rangers who became friends with Coffman, was killed in action during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. 

The Rangers had a lasting impact on Coffman, and he always wanted to depict their experiences through his art to show the world how incredible these hard-chargers were.

Mitchel Coffman with his triptych painting.
Mitchel Coffman with his triptych painting depicting the many stories of veterans and their experiences at war. (Joshua Skovlund/Task & Purpose)

In May 2022, Coffman and a designer unveiled a massive presentation at Hunter Army Airfield (HAAF), home to 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, dedicated to fallen Rangers. The elegant display of portraits depicts the many 1st Battalion Rangers killed in action. The two were awarded medals as the entire battalion welcomed them to their compound in recognition of the work they dedicated themselves to. 

With his wife and parents next to him, the moment became a highlight of his life. 

“It was an unbelievable experience. Hearing the Ranger Creed and they flew helicopters over the top of us — holy shit, man,” Coffman said. “To know that I worked on a project that got that, like, I don’t give a shit about putting work in a gallery at that point.” 

A year later, Coffman and the designer presented another series of portraits, this time of Rangers who had been killed in training. Both presentations are housed in the Hall of Honor at HAAF. During both presentations, he met Gold Star families which helped him better understand how much the portraits mean to the families and friends of those killed. 

Mitchel Coffman's painting workstation.
Mitchel Coffman’s mobile painting station that he uses to create massive works of art for the “Wish You Were Here” series. (Joshua Skovlund/Task & Purpose)

“You are solidifying their son, their brother, or whatever family member’s memory and life — forever,” Coffman said. “Like I painted this person, and it’s going to live in this place forever, with their name, and they will never be forgotten.”

He thoroughly researches every project he takes on to learn the story behind the person he’s painting. Coffman talks to family, friends, and fellow service members to understand the character of the person he’s painting so that he can portray them as accurately as possible. 

“I don’t even know how you’d classify what level of education I’ve gotten from these projects, but every conversation I have, I learn more and more and more,” Coffman said. “It’s really cool. I enjoy it.”

His current project started in 2016, before the Hall of Honor project and expanded into detailing the culture and life of conventional troops, Marine Raiders, Navy SEALs, and Rangers. It’s titled “Wish You Were Here,” and it tells the story of the War on Terror and the unique lives of those who served and deployed. Each oil on canvas painting is a highlight from a series of photos Coffman received from veterans to use as inspiration. 

Meet Mitchel Coffman, the artist keeping fallen hero’s memories alive
Mitchel Coffman’s depiction of his close friend Zach Walters and his locker while serving as a Navy SEAL. (Joshua Skovlund/Task & Purpose)

The paintings have so many details that a person can stare at any piece of art in the project for hours and still find new details. Each canvas is massive, and once completed, will be an abstract American flag when displayed together. But individually, each canvas tells a story. One of the pieces is titled “PTSD.”

“What I decided to do was not just paint portraits, but I painted incomplete portraits to symbolize the incomplete lives that all these guys had,” Coffman said. “I did some research about the statistics. There were so many different numbers for how many guys take their lives every day, so I landed on 24,” Coffman said. “I did 12 incomplete portraits, and then I left 12 spaces undone to represent how we don’t talk about [PTSD and suicide].”

Every canvas aims to humanize service members and what they’ve been through. Each installment is heavy with the burden of memories of those lost while shining a light on happy memories like a puppy on deployment or the soldier picking his nose during downtime. 

The immersive exhibit will include audio interviews with the veterans who submitted photos and animations that bring the paintings to life. Coffman has started talking to museums and other venues to display his exhibit, which he estimates will be done soon, but is looking for more venues to collaborate with. He hopes to display his exhibit all across the U.S., giving veterans, Gold Star families, and art enthusiasts a chance to see it no matter where they live.

Meet Mitchel Coffman, the artist keeping fallen hero’s memories alive
The last painting in Mitchel Coffman’s series, titled, “Wish You Were Here.” (Joshua Skovlund/Task & Purpose)

Coffman’s last installment for the project is possibly the heaviest of them all. 

It’s an abstract oil on canvas painting that depicts a photo of Coffman comforting his mom off to the side of his father’s flag-draped casket. His dad was a Vietnam Veteran who died after a long battle with cancer. Coffman’s father grew up working with his dad at a steel mill, and after returning from Vietnam, he couldn’t find his footing as an animator, so he ended up taking an office job to support his family. 

“That was a decision that he always regretted growing up. He always told me never to grow up and be like him. My inspiration, drive, and passion — all those things come from him,” Coffman said. “The piece I’m doing now is from his funeral because he passed away and didn’t get to see the piece or this work displayed. […]. To leave out my dad and his military service as a part of the whole story would be a huge miss for me, and I couldn’t do that.”

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