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Cartoonists Draw on More Than What They See on USO Tours

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

By Joseph Andrew Lee 

A small group of middle-aged men walked through the gray, sterile hallways of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany in the fall of 2010.  

They were illustrators from the National Cartoonists Society on a USO tour. Tom Richmond, an illustrator for MAD Magazine, was among them.  He recalls the moment he was invited into one soldier’s room:

“This guy was hooked up to I don’t know how many machines,” Richmond said. “He had just gotten back from the theatre and he had lung damage and — oh my goodness he was just in terrible shape. In fact, he couldn’t even talk. He had tubes coming out of his mouth and his nose and he was barely conscious but he wanted us there — he wanted me there — to draw him, you know?

“But I do caricatures for people, and here’s a guy that’s just really in tough shape and I wasn’t sure what to do. So I just drew his caricature, you know, whipping off a salute and I just ignored all the apparatus and the stuff that was hooked up to him and tried to draw him like he looked … if he hadn’t been hurt. 

“I gave it to him and he was having trouble getting across what he wanted to say because he couldn’t speak, but eventually one of the doctors there told me, ‘I think he wants you to draw him like he looks right now.’ 

Richmond-sketch_small

“So I did another drawing of him with all the tubes and his eyes swollen shut, and it was a really, really hard thing to do. I gave it to him and he took it and reached up with the one hand he could move and he shook my hand and then he held that drawing to his chest and wouldn’t let it go. He just wanted to see — for me to capture — him right at that moment.”

The National Cartoonists Society (NCS) first visited wounded troops during World War II when cartoonists Gus Edson, Otto Soglow, Clarence D. Russell, Bob Dunn and others performed what became known as “chalk talks” at military hospitals for the USO. (A chalk talk is when an artist creates on-the-fly illustrations to add life to a monologue.) During World War II these performances were extremely popular among service members, but over time other forms of entertainment overshadowed the performance art.

After a nearly 60-year hiatus, Navy veteran and Military Times “Broadside” cartoonist Jeff Bacon reignited the relationship during a 2005 NCS meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, when he asked his fellow cartoonists what they were doing for troops recovering from today’s war.  

Fellow Army Times cartoonist Bruce Higdon said Bacon’s words led several concerned NCS members to restart the partnership with the USO. 

“We sort of got back to our roots,” Higdon said. “We went to Germany twice, in 2007 and 2008, and we finally saw the reaction from the troops in the hospitals at Landstuhl and the troops at Ramstein [Germany] and some of the other facilities there.” 

Higdon joined the tour because of the impact the USO had on him as a single serviceman stationed overseas. 

“I remember Mohammed Ali, after he fought in the Philippines in ’76, flew from the Philippines up there to the DMZ to visit us,” he said. “That was always a memory in my life, and here I am now traveling to other places and visiting some guys who are far away from home and hopefully giving them a laugh.” 

The NCS relationship with the USO has sent famed illustrators from “Looney Tunes,” “B.C.” and “The Family Circus,” as well as caricature artists like Richmond to meet troops in theatre and at military hospitals at home and abroad. In fact, according to Richmond, the NCS has cartoonists on a waiting list just to get the opportunity. 

“We visit these guys to pick them up and end up getting so inspired ourselves,” Richmond said. “Hospital visits are the hardest for us. It’s hard because it’s heartbreaking, you know, to see these young men and women — sometimes seriously hurt — and know that they’ve got a long road to recovery ahead of them and a lot of challenges in front of them. … But almost to a person, they are very positive, upbeat and ready for the challenges ahead.” 

“I’ve never heard anyone regret their station in life,” Higdon said. “No one ever complained about the Army. In fact, this one Marine was 18 years old [and] he said the Marines had become his family because his family had kind of distanced themselves after his injury. So here he was, all alone, he was telling jokes, picking at us. Explaining all of his prosthetic devices and telling us that he had been approved to remain in the Marine Corps as a rifle instructor. They had approved that, and he was so happy, and … it just melts your heart.” 

Richmond feels the tours have a profound impact on troops because of the time the cartoonists can take with each person.  

“It takes us 10 to 15 minutes to do one of these drawings, and during that time we really get the chance to talk to these guys and gals, and that’s the part that’s most rewarding for us,” Richmond said, “It’s not just a photo op, where we drop in shake their hand and get a picture taken with them and move on.  

“They want to tell you their story, how they got hurt or where they were serving or what their situation was and is, and what they are looking forward to now.” 

hospital-cartoonists

The encounter is more than an exchange of artwork and gesture. It’s a therapeutic experience between folks from different generations, and it’s the reactions on the service members’ faces that keep Richmond and Higdon coming back. 

“The ride back is very quiet,” Higdon said. “After we’ve been where we’ve been, when we sit down on that plane and that 12-hour or 14-hour plane ride back — all of it kind of hits you."

“I hope that we won’t have to go into the theatre anymore because there won’t be anybody in the theatre anymore,” Richmond said. “But the world is the way it is, so any time the USO wants us to go somewhere and try to bring some smiles to some faces, we’re in a line to do it.” 

Bottom: Cartoonists Rick Kirkman (C) and Tom Richmond (R), present caricatures to U. S. Army SGT jason Gilbert of East Lake, OH, while visiting Landstuhl Regional Medical Center on November 6, 2010.  The pair are in the region with fellow cartoonists Jeff Keane, Mike Luckovich, Stephan Pastis and Garry Trudeau to visit and uplift troops.  USO photo by Mike Clifton  

Middle: Illustration of a wounded service member visited in Germany re-created by Tom Richmond  

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