A war hero, a 1-legged pigeon and a 2-faced spy

Phil Briggs
April 26, 2018 - 2:03 pm

They were once the creative directors behind the TV, radio and print ads for iconic brands like Coke, Sprite and JCPenny. 

Now, these retired executives from advertising's golden age, have created a different kind of campaign–one that pays tribute to all military veterans.

Before painting veterans, Mike Koulermos, lead the advertising team for Coca Cola's legendary campaign, "New Coke." At the time, it was a huge leap of faith for the largest brand in American advertising meanwhile, Koulermos was creating ads seen all around the world.

Now retired, he is the founder of AdVets for WarVets, which began with creating portraits of the original Mad Men, who were the pioneers of the modern advertising agency, and depicted in HBO's orignial series Mad Men. "When we finished the gallery exhibit, it felt like we were all back in the business again, with writers and artists all ready to tell a story...so we decided to paint real heroes, and tell the stories of American veterans."

Togther, they created over 100 paintings, each with a short story, that captured veteran's experiences from Civil War until now. 

The project eventually became AdVets for WarVets, a non profit organization with a mission of, "Creating and selling works of art featuring American war heroes, with proceeds going to benefit veterans and their families." Koulermos said.

Below, are just a few of our favorite paintings:

Stare- Artist/Writer Mike Koulermos



"I just wanted to feature what these soldiers went through," Koulermos said. As he reflected on being an ad exec in the 1970's, he touched on how advertisers viewed the war, "It just wasn't a subject we talked about back then ... and it should have been." He explained that when he looks at the images in this piece he realizes, "how important it is for all of us to show support for our soldiers, from then, and now."  

How Strong You Are- Artist/Writer, Camille McMennamin



When asked about her decision to honor Kirstie Ennis, Camille McMenniman replied, "I scoured the internet and other media for pictures of heroes throughout history whose stories of bravery I found particularly dramatic and inspiring. I did eleven paintings and stories in all and my last was of Kirstie Ennis. I had spotted her standing tall in a People magazine spread, a beautiful, proud young marine vet with long, blonde hair, tats and a full leg prosthesis. I Googled her for more info and cried I was so blown away by her story."  

Camille, was Senior VP/ Associate Creative Director, McCaffrey & McCall and worked on ads that ranged from alcohol, (Hiram Walker Cordials) to fashion, (JCPenney) to Desitin for Diaper Rash. Her anti-smoking tv commercial featuring a dying Yul Brynner for the American Cancer Society won several awards and ran for decades worldwide. 


War Pigeon- Artist/Writer Mike Koulermos



Only one homing pigeon was left: “Cher Ami”. 

She was dispatched with a note in a canister on her left leg. They were along the road parallel to 276.4 and their own artillery was dropping a barrage directly on them.

As Cher Ami tried to fly back home, the Germans saw her rising out of the brush and opened fire. For several moments, Cher Ami flew with bullets zipping through the air all around her. Eventually Cher Ami was shot down. Despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, totally covered in her own blood and with a leg hanging only by a tendon, she some how managed to take flight again. 

She arrived back at her loft at division headquarters 25 miles to the rear in just 25 minutes, helping to save the lives of the 194 survivors. 

Cher Ami became the hero of the 77th Infantry Division and before her death in 1919, was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for her heroic service in delivering 12 important messages in Verdun, France. 


Two Faced SpyArtist/Writer Mike Koulermos



In the companion story to this painting Koulermos writes, "Both sides heavily employed spies and made great use of espionage during the war. It was critical for both sides to have as much information about the enemy as possible because even the slightest edge could win or lose a battle. Grant’s use of the Army of the Potomac’s Bureau of Military Information played a significant role in Lee’s defeat.

If you look close at the soldier in the painting, you will see he actually has two faces- one facing forward and another is a profile.


Everyone called him Uncle Icky-  Aritst, Mike Koulermos / Writer Marshall Karp



It's not just a touching story about a veteran, but he's writer, Marshall Karp's real uncle. Karp explained the story behind the painting:

In 2007, Uncle Icky was photographed attending a Veterans Day parade. The original of that shot was wider but every website that ran it instinctively cropped in tight on the intense look of an aging war hero honoring the colors as they went by. For a few hours on that Veterans Day, Uncle Icky was the face of the American patriot seen by countless millions around the world.  

AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

"Interesting story about that day. The Veterans parade was an annual event for him, and there were years when he’d be on a float or in a vehicle waving at the crowd," Karp said. But in 2007, he left his home in Queens, took the subway to Manhattan, and found a spot on the parade route. He went alone and legally blind with nothing but a cane and a determination to honor his fellow vets and his country.

"It was to be his final parade, and while I have never met the photographer, I am indebted to him for capturing the image of a true American hero."

Before capturing that remarkable photo, Irving Ziffer had lived an even more remarkable life. 

Karp writes, "My uncle, Staff Sergeant Irving Ziffer, was born and raised in a tough neighborhood in upper Manhattan. A true patriot, he enlisted in the NY National Guard at 18, and when Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was in the first wave of troops to be sent to the Pacific. He spent the next four years in combat."

If you asked him where he was stationed, he’d just smile. He was never stationed. He went from island to island to island. He was a moving target. One day in Saipan, he didn’t move fast enough and was shot.

They told him at the hospital that he needed six months to recover so they could get the shrapnel out. Then he’d be shipped back to the states. He said no. He was a platoon leader. He wasn’t going home while his men were still on the front lines. He went back into combat."

In the years and generations that followed, Ziffers nephew Karp, became a creative director producing ads for Coke, Sprite Minute Maid and Gillete and eventually publishing true crime novels. "And of course I put Uncle Icky in my first book, The Rabbit Factory.  He’s Irv Ziffer — Ziff the Sniff — the best narcotics cop in all of LAPD.  He was so thrilled that I kept bringing the character back throughout the series."

Karp explained that even in his final years, Uncle Icky remained an inspring and entertaining character, "When it was time to pick a health care proxy he asked my wife Emily. I’m not sure if it’s because she’s a strong woman, or because he didn’t want to put the burden on his blood relatives —  a niece and five nephews (he had no kids of his own.)  

Here’s the instructions he gave to Emily: "If I’m lying there on life support, and the doctors ask you what to do, I want you to put a pair of dice in my left hand and a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue in my right. If I don’t wake up, pull the fucking plug.” 

Cheers to Uncle Icky- the kind of guy we would have loved to meet. Click here to see the entire collection of AdVets for WarVets paintings.