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Veteran says painting missionaries who have died helped save his own life

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HUNTSVILLE, Utah — There was a joyous and emotional gathering in the small town of Huntsville over the weekend involving a special group of people who have lost missionaries.

The gathering started Friday afternoon at the studios of JR Johansen, a portrait artist with an incredible talent for capturing the faces of the young and old. But behind each one of the faces is a story — all of them are missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who died while serving.

To date, Johansen has done 125 portraits, and every year, he holds a reunion of sorts with the families of missionaries he's painted.

"This is my brother, William. He's my youngest brother," said Derrick Jack as he talked about the portrait of a young man next to him.

William was in the mission field for 14 months when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Ten days later, he died.

"I love how JR has honored my brother," said Jack. "He painted him truer than life, bigger than life. I feel like JR has given this great gift to my family, and as many years as he puts this (reunion) on, I'm going to come up and support it and support him."

Johansen started painting as a form of therapy after serving in Vietnam.

"I came back from my military service in Vietnam and it was pretty tough," Johansen said to KSL-TV. "I spoke with a therapist and they asked me what I liked doing, if I had any hobbies, and I said, 'I like to paint.'"

JR Johansen with some of his paintings, Friday.
JR Johansen with some of his paintings, Friday. (Photo: Stuart Johnson, KSL-TV)

So, Johansen started painting, and about five years ago, he started painting missionaries who lost their lives.

It's a free service, he said, that has saved his life.

"I'm honored. I think I'm alive today because of painting portraits of the missionaries. I believe in service and service has kept me alive," said an emotional Johansen. "This brings such joy to me to know that families appreciate it so much."

Johansen calls his service project "Angels Among Us" and he's still looking for families.

If you have any names for him, you can reach out to him on Facebook.

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