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Veteran's Day: Portrait of a Warrior Gallery

Remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice

by Vaun Thygerson
Contributing writer and mother of three

Maria Garcia, alongside the Gallery's portrait of her late son, Alberto Garcia, Jr.
“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.” -President Harry S. Truman. 

Maria Garcia’s eyes light up when she tells stories about her handsome son, Alberto Garcia, Jr., who loved Johnny Cash, played the bass guitar, and had wanted to serve his country since he was a child. Alberto was killed in action in 2007 during Operation Iraqi Freedom; and to honor his memory and sacrifice, his portrait now hangs on the wall at the Portrait of a Warrior Gallery – Kern County, located at 1925 Eye Street in Bakersfield. 

After Alberto enlisted in the Army, he went to boot camp at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was then sent to Schweinfurt, Germany, where he was a Specialist in the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, and 1st Infantry Division, and was killed in Baghdad, Iraq, just a few days after his 23rd birthday. 

Maria says she has “no words to describe” how much her son’s portrait and this gallery mean to her family and other Gold Star families. When she first saw the artist’s painting, she said it was very heartfelt and she experienced all kinds of emotions. 

“I was just so happy they were here to honor his memory with such dignity and respect. Back to the first moment I saw the portrait, I had mixed feelings, and such a sense of worth and dignity,” she says. “My mission as his mother is to honor his memory as best I can.” 

This unique gallery, which honors Kern County’s 27 fallen warriors who were killed in action or died as a result of wounds suffered on the battlefield since September 11, 2001, was founded by Lili Marsh. Inspired by a similar gallery in Baytown, Texas, by artist Ken Pridgeon, Lili worked hard to make this concept a reality in Bakersfield. As the daughter of a World War II veteran, she also serves as the Executive Director of Kern County Honor Flight. 

“I am passionate about this because I can’t believe that people sacrifice so much for our country, sacrifice so much for us,” Lili says. 

While planning for the gallery, Lili coincidentally found an artist, Thomas Zachary, to help with the portraits when she saw him painting a patriotic mural downtown. As luck would have it, the space across from his impressive mural came up for rent and after a total renovation, the gallery held its grand opening one year ago in September. Thomas Zachary painted the first four portraits for the gallery, one of which was Alberto’s. The family members are given a smaller copy of the painting for themselves.

One portrait was painted by the artist Ken Pridgeon, who came from Texas for the gallery’s grand opening. The rest of the paintings are the creation of local artist Nellie Scarborough, with a lot of input and pictures from the families.

“I want people to not just see a man in uniform, but to instantly look at the portrait and know something about him,” Lili says. 

The gallery also features a Battlefield Cross sculpture that holds the dog tags from some of the fallen heroes, a Vietnam veteran room with photographs of local fallen warriors, a team room that mimics how soldiers lived in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a resource center where veterans can find information on medical and behavioral health assistance, veteran services, housing, and much more. One wall in the gallery is covered with 22 crosses to symbolize the 22 active-duty and veterans who die by suicide every day. 

There is also an education room that can accommodate groups for an informative session with a veteran as part of an individualized tour of the gallery. Currently, another room is in the process of being transformed into an MIA Remembered room that will eventually showcase more than 82,000 dog tags of the missing soldiers from WWII to present. This exhibit will open in January, 2020, and will be the only one like it in the country. 

For more information, to make a donation to sponsor a portrait, or to book a group tour, visit www.kernwarriors.com, call 661-303-3837, or follow them on Facebook. 

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