The ceremonies began at precisely 9:11 Tuesday morning in a symbolic and somber recognition of the devastating terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that would trigger two wars and the loss of thousands of American troops.

Close to 200 people gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of the Portrait of a Warrior Gallery in downtown Bakersfield, a sanctuary of sorts where those lost are honored and remembered with gratitude for their sacrifice and respect for their service.

"These gentlemen gave their lives for us, people they didn't even know. The least we can do is remember them," Lili Marsh, founder of the local gallery, said of the 27 post 9/11 servicemen — from Kern County, or with Kern County connections — whose portraits are the centerpiece of the gallery.

A labor of love built entirely from donated funds, materials and the sweat and efforts of volunteers, the gallery not only honors the young warriors killed in action in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it also has a section to remember those who died off the battlefield.

But there's a separate tribute to those who fell in Vietnam, there's an education room, a re-creation of a squad room to give visitors a glimpse into how soldiers and Marines lived while deployed, and a memorial dedicated to an ongoing tragedy: returning veterans who have died and are dying at their own hands.

Randy Freeman, of Oceanside, was there with his wife, Kathy, to see the unveiling of the portrait of his son, U.S. Army Capt. Brian Freeman, who was born in Bakersfield in 1975, graduated from West Point in 1999 and died in an ambush in Karbala, Iraq on Jan. 20, 2007.

"Everything in his life was golden," Freeman remembered of his high-achieving son. He never thought that such a charmed life could end this way.

"It's another way for people to remember, to not forget," he said of the local gallery. "We need to remember."

Near the Statue of Liberty mural across the street, a bell rang out 27 times, once for each of the men whose uniformed figures grace the portraits exhibited at the local gallery. The names were recited by retired soldiers and Marines as the bell tolled.

A gun salute and the somber notes of taps also echoed through the downtown streets.

The idea for the gallery was first born in Texas some years ago when artist Ken Pridgeon was asked to paint a portrait of a fallen soldier. Then another family asked. And another.

To date, he's painted more than 350 portraits, and was instrumental in developing the first Portrait of a Warrior Gallery.

"Bakersfield is the second one," Pridgeon told The Californian last year. "This is only the beginning."

The painted portraits not only depict the fallen in their military uniforms. Using family snapshots as inspiration, the portrait artists also include images of the warrior as a child or a teen.

Three more recently completed portraits will be unveiled privately Saturday when more families of the fallen are able to visit the gallery.

But for Maybelle Luevano, of Victorville, who lost her son, Rudy Augustine Salcido in 2006 to a roadside bomb, visiting the gallery for the first time Tuesday was an emotional, yet happy experience.

Ever since he was a kid, Rudy knew he wanted to be in the Army.

"That was my little warrior," she said, referring to the boy dressed in a Viking helmet who shares the portrait with the man he would become, a California Army National Guard sergeant who intended to make the Army his career.

He was told he did not have to go to Iraq, but a sense of duty and his desire to accompany the men he trained made the decision for him, his mother said.

As she gazed at her son's portrait, she smiled a wan smile.

"It's beautiful," she said.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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