NORWAY – Just days before Christmas and her own birthday, Wanda Kilgore was surprised to come home and find a large package on the porch of her home on French Road.

Opening it, she found a framed oil painting of her son Corey Dan, wearing a white T-shirt, a wide smile, and with his arm wrapped around the head of her horse.

“He loved her to death. She’s a family pet,” said Kilgore of the 5-year-old buckskin named Sasha that she has owned since 1993.

Army Sgt. Corey Dan was killed March 13, 2006, near Ramadi, Iraq, when he came under small-arms fire and an improvised explosive devise detonated near him. The 22-year-old Norway native and 2001 graduate of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School was serving his second tour in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division.

“He was a military man. Yes he was. And I will always be the Army mom, but this is my son. This is the picture I wanted to have,” she said of Dan, who never got to meet his son, Austin.

The portrait came as a wonderful gift to Kilgore and her family through an organization called Project Compassion. It was founded in 2003 by Kaziah Hancock as a way to honor American servicemen and women who gave their lives in service to their country after Sept. 11, 2001, and say thank you to the family members they left behind.

Hancock and five other volunteer portrait painters, including Layne Brady, who painted Dan’s picture, paint a free, 18- by 24-inch portrait on canvas based on a favorite picture that the family provides.

Kilgore, who had seen a story about the organization on a “TODAY” show segment, said a woman whose son had been deployed with Dan contacted the organization to ask about having the portrait painted for his family.

The family then had to select a favorite picture of Dan.

It didn’t take much time for Kilgore to decide that the portrait would be based on a photograph taken of Dan during a family party while the young soldier was on leave in the late summer of 2003, just before he was redeployed to Iraq.

The photo “is my ultimate favorite,” Kilgore said smiling.

“We were having a family barbecue, and he just went down to the barn to see the horse,” said Kilgore of the day she took the photograph. “I said ‘turn around so I can take your picture.’ He said ‘sure.’ He was never camera shy.”

It took the artist about seven months to paint the portrait.

“It’s just remarkable,” said Kilgore looking at the portrait. “It’s all in the eyes. I’m really glad I chose that picture. That’s the way he was. … so laid back, always had a smile. Everyone knew him like that. That’s Corey.”

The portrait will hang on the living room wall between pictures of Dan’s son and his brothers.

“You can just reach out and grab him,” she said as she looked wistfully at the portrait.

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