How a Navy SEAL honored the fallen with 'target art'

On Sept. 11, 2012, a retired SEAL sniper took a small team to Blackwater’s former facility in the swamps of Virginia where he shot at a target from 911 yards 79 times — once for every Naval Special Warfare casualty since 9-11, those killed in both combat and training.

UIH on screen

Until It Hurts features the target with the 79 bullet holes highlighted in red. (Photo: Eric Wickham)

He sent the first round downrange at 8:46 AM, the time the first airliner hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, in honor of Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts — the first SEAL killed during the war in Afghanistan. The shot found the target, and the bullet hole was labeled with Roberts’ name by a volunteer spotter downrange.

“I’d take the shot, and they’d find the bullet hole,” the sniper recalled. “They’d write the name down next to the hole. I’d hand the brass to my wife who had the list of names and she’d label it. It was kind of a sacred process.”

"Until It Hurts" target artwork.

Until It Hurts target artwork.

Several days after the shoot, the SEAL sniper’s wife convinced him to show the target to one of the contractors working on their house who had a brother who supposedly did “target art.” The SEAL Googled him — Ellwood T. Risk — and realized the guy was the real deal.

The contractor called his brother on the spot, and without hesitation the artist said, “I’m in; I’ll do it for free.”

Risk had been saving military-related front pages of major newspapers since 9-11, waiting for just such an opportunity. The result is a powerful piece of art called Until It Hurts.

Until It Hurts features the target with the 79 bullet holes highlighted in red. The target is flanked by the front pages with headlines announcing the news of the wars over the years. At the bottom of the piece the 79 names of the fallen are listed in chronological order.

Former Navy SEAL Jason Redman, a well-known wounded warrior, author, and founder of Wounded Wear, a company that specializes in providing free clothing to wounded vets, heard about the artwork and contacted Norfolk-area businessman Todd Grubbs, who eventually bought the piece at auction for $10,000. That money was put towards clothing for wounded vets and the Navy SEAL Foundation, a non-profit that funds education for the dependents of fallen SEALs.

Redman and Grubbs see the sale of the piece as just the beginning of its utility.

“The art should be perceived as a celebration of life,” said Grubbs, who has no desire to let Until It Hurts languish on a wall in his home.

“My biggest fear is we give guys clothing and they kill themselves in it,” Redman said. “We’re not helping them find their purpose. The American people aren’t helping. You see nothing on the news anymore. Even those we’re still losing guys. We have to keep the discussion going, to contextualize the sacrifice for the entire country. This artwork helps.”

Jason Redman addresses the audience following the premiere of "Until It Hurts" in Norfolk, Virginia. (Photo: Eric Wickham)

Former Navy SEAL and vet entrepreneur Jason Redman addresses the audience following the premiere of Until It Hurts in Norfolk, Virginia. (Photo: Eric Wickham)

Among Grubbs’ business concerns is film production, so naturally he thought of turning the artwork and the events surrounding it into a film. He enlisted the help of director Scott Hanson and together they created Until It Hurts, which premiered in Norfolk, Virginia on Feb. 21.

“Doing this documentary gave me the chance to work with SEALs and learn more about their families and what they do,” Hanson said following the premiere. “It makes me way more appreciative that I can do what I do.”

“It hits everybody in different ways,” Redman said. “A wounded warrior sees one thing, a Gold Star family member sees something else, and a civilian sees something else. And that’s what’s so great about it.”

“This was the first showing to a civilian audience,” Jake Healy, son of Senior Chief Dan Healy who was killed when the Chinook attempting to extract four SEALs trapped on a mountain was hit by an RPG — a tragedy well-documented in Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor and the associated major motion picture. “Their response to the movie tonight was powerful and reassuring.”

“I hope it will…highlight the sacrifice of Americans who understand what it took to make this country.” Redman said.

You can watch the full documentary right here:

WATM field correspondent Briggs Carroll contributed to this article.