SPOKANE — 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 his last year of 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 toolbox with floral scroll patterns. This past summer, he spent around 400 hours engraving the Volkswagen Beetle he built and chemically rusted.
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 worked with Waggoner in Iraq in 2005 and 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.
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 soldier,” 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.
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.”
Waggoner said he has three more portraits to finish in November and has 15 subjects lined up through the end of the year.
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.”