By Tom Richmond
Most cartoonists will tell you they create works that bring smiles to readers all across the globe from the isolated confines of their studios and drawing boards. Ten nationally recognized cartoonists ventured out into the real world in October and brought their talents, their smiles, and the laughs they impart, to U.S. troops in Washington D.C., Germany, Kuwait, and Iraq on a ten-day tour with the USO.
The cartoonists, all members of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS), included: NCS president Jeff Keane (“The Family Circus”), Jeff Bacon (“Broadside” and “Greenside”), Chip Bok (syndicated editorial cartoonist), Bruce Higdon (“Punderstatements”), Rick Kirkman (“Baby Blues”), Stephan Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”), Mike Peters (“Mother Goose and Grimm”), Michael Ramirez (Investors Business Daily, syndicated editorial cartoonist), Tom Richmond (MAD magazine), and Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”). Some of the group had traveled previously as far as Landstuhl, Germany, on a similar trip, and Trudeau had visited Kuwait; but none had gone “down range” into Iraq.
“A group of cartoonists in the 1940s started doing ‘chalk talks’ for soldiers and from that the NCS was formed. These trips are just a continuation of those beginnings. It is our way of saying thanks to the men and women who serve us so well and sacrifice so much,” stated Jeff Keane of the Cartoonists annual USO Tour. “There were only ten of us on this journey, but over the past few years we have had over 100 cartoonists participate in multiple visits to hospitals across the U.S. Working with the USO to help make these trips a reality has been a blessing for us. We’ve got our pencils sharpened and are ready to go again.”
Each NCS-USO Tour proves more popular than the last, with this year’s tour being no exception. Service members love to meet the characters behind the cartoons they grew up with and get drawings and caricatures sketched just for them. “I think the time we spend with the soldiers and personnel we meet, talking with them and listening to their individual stories, is a little more personal than just the photo-op they get with other ‘real’ celebrities,” commented Tom Richmond of MAD magazine. “Plus they get a drawing that we create right on the spot. We hope our visit, and particular sense of humor, brings these soldiers a chuckle no matter where they are deployed.”
Tom Richmond’s NCS-USO Tour Journal 2009
Washington D.C./Bethesda, Maryland
Our group met near Washington and spent October 15 touring the National Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Most of us had done this before and we knew what to expect—the most heart-wrenching yet inspirational visit of the trip would occur here. At these two hospitals are the troops who were seriously injured while serving their country. It’s hard to see these young people hurt and the challenges they face as a result of the sacrifices they have made for us and our nation. At the same time, it’s amazing to see the determination and positive outlook that most of these men and women have about their situation and their future.
As we would at nearly every stop, we split into two groups of five and visited with wounded warriors at both locations, drawing personalized cartoons and caricatures for them as we asked about their experiences, their families, and plans for the future. We took our time with each, getting the chance to listen to their stories while we sketched something for each of them, hoping to cheer them up. Some of us draw the characters from our features or strips, while some do caricatures of the soldiers or a member of their family (many of whom are there with their loved ones).
This year, the majority of troops we met with at Bethesda and Walter Reed seemed to have been wounded in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device. The injuries some of these brave men and women have suffered are appalling. They are missing limbs and are facing a long road of multiple surgeries, recovery, and rehabilitation to regain as much of their mobility and their lives as they can. The courage they demonstrate in the field is equal to or exceeds that which they display in the challenges that are before them back home. Yet they are all smiles and genuine laughs as we joke with them and give them our little doodles. What a privilege and gift it is to be able to do even such a small thing for someone who has given so much.
We unfortunately missed out on one of the most awe-inspiring moments of the annual NCS tour—a stop in the rehab facility at Walter Reed, the Military Advanced Training Center. It was closed that day due to a base drill. On our trip to the Center last year we met some of the most incredible young men and women who were engaging in nearly superhuman efforts of rehabilitation in the therapy room. Still we were able to meet with many troops who were convalescing there and drew for them. We also were able to draw for some of the hard-working hospital staff in both locations. These folks sometimes get overlooked when people visit the hospitals and it was a pleasure to show them that they are appreciated as well.
After a full day of drawing and laughing, we left for Dulles International Airport to start the journey down range. There we met up with our USO tour managers, as well as the USO photographer. They had the unenviable task of organizing the unorganizable—a group of cartoonists. The term “herding cats” comes to mind, except cats don’t draw on the tablecloths at restaurants while eating dinner. I thought it would be irresistible force meets immovable object, but it turned out we cartoonists had no chance against the “mad” organizing skills of our USO handlers. First stop—Germany.
Our two days and one night in Germany were a whirlwind of activity barely interrupted by sleep. Upon landing, we were shepherded to Ramstein Air Force Base to drop off our bags, eat lunch, and then it was straight to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) to tour the wards and meet with injured soldiers.
Meeting with soldiers at LRMC is very different than back in the stateside hospitals. At Walter Reed or Bethesda, the soldiers are on the back end of their recovery. Here we met with troops who had just arrived from down range where they had sustained their injuries. LRMC, the largest American military hospital outside the United States, is the first stop for injured soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. As a result some of the people we met were in some serious pain and had a hard time interacting with us. Those we did get to meet were left smiling with a pile of drawings.
Not all the soldiers we met with were injured by enemy contact. Some were suffering from various ailments and injuries sustained by everyday accidents or mishaps. One such soldier we met was not American, but a Polish Army Warrant Officer, being treated for a blood clot and recently discovered heart problems. His name was Miroslaq Augustyn (but he went by “Mike”). He was very emotional when he explained that the treatment of his blood clot led to the discovery of his heart condition, which would probably have otherwise gone unnoticed until too late. He was a lot of fun, and when I handed him his caricature he laughed so hard he exclaimed, “Are you guys trying to kill me?” So far I have never killed anyone with one of my caricatures—although I have made a few people sick! We also were able to again draw for the hospital staff and personnel, which is always a pleasure. They save the lives of our service members on a daily basis.
After the LRMC visit, we went over to the year-old USO Warrior Center. We had a special treat waiting for us there—Mary Jean Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She had stopped by to visit the Center to meet with troops and with us. That night, we went back to Ramstein a tired—but fulfilled—group of cartoonists.
The next day, we set up in the military air terminal for a meet and greet. We had quite a crowd of soldiers, wives, kids, and family members to visit with and draw for, thanks to some effective advertising of our appearance on base. We drew for a while down in the terminal itself and then moved to the USO Center to draw and talk some more. Some of the people we met were stationed in the area, while some were outbound to various places. Afterward, it was back to Frankfurt en route to Kuwait City.
We arrived at the airport in Kuwait City later that night. I was prepared for major culture shock. Traveling in Europe is one thing. In Europe, you can usually figure out the meaning of things, like signs, based on the common nature of the Latin-based languages and the use of the same basic alphabetical characters, which at least look familiar. Arabic, on the other hand, is totally indecipherable to one with no knowledge of the language. Every time I saw something written in Arabic, I had the impulse to turn it upside down. My fears were groundless. Almost every sign in Kuwait, especially road and directional signs, had English translations below. There was no shortage of Western influence, either. The airport food court had a Burger King, McDonalds, and of course, a Starbucks.
The next morning, we were off to Camp Arifjan, the center of our forces in Kuwait. We met and were briefed by John McCay, the director of the Area Support Group for Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) in Kuwait. It’s these folks’ job to make life a little easier and provide some distractions and comforts to the deployed soldiers on the bases. They build gyms, recreation centers, theaters, and game rooms so troops can unwind while off duty. One of the things I noticed upon reaching Arifjan was another Starbucks. Is it oddly comforting to know that even on a military base, in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert, you can get a Caramel Mocha Latte fix if you need one? No, it’s frightening actually. After our briefing we again split into two groups of five and headed out to two different forward operating bases (FOBs). My group consisted of Jeff Keane, Jeff Bacon, Mike Peters, Chip Bok and me. Our first stop was Camp Buehring, the most northern of the U.S. camps in Kuwait, about 15 miles from the Iraqi border. It was named after Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Buehring, who was killed in 2003 in a rocket attack in Baghdad. After meeting with some of the camp’s officers, we headed out to the DFAC (that’s the mess hall for you civilians) for some lunch and then to the USO Center on base to draw for the troops. No time for a doppio espresso at the ’Bucks across from the DFAC.
Camp Buehring’s primary purpose is as a staging/training area for troops heading into Iraq. You could tell that the soldiers were headed into the war zone—they were all a little more intense. We set up and drew for more than two hours. It’s funny how differently the soldiers and personnel we meet view our time with them. It never fails that within the first few seconds of meeting them, they thank us profusely for coming all this way. It’s funny because I look at it as a great honor and privilege to be able to do this, and whatever long days we go through is nothing compared to the sacrifice these men and women are making out there in the desert. I would walk to the Middle East if I could to do this small thing to show my appreciation to these troops every day.
After Camp Buehring, it was off to Camp Virginia. Camp Virginia is sort of the opposite of Buehring. It is the staging area for troops coming back from Iraq, a place to decompress and do paperwork before heading home. The mood at Virginia is a lot less stressful than at Buehring. We had dinner at the DFAC and then set up in the local USO Center to draw some more.
Meanwhile, the other group visited Camp Ali Al Saleem (The Rock) and Camp LSA that day prior to us all joining forces again at Virginia. Since our Camp Buehring group was so much more personable and handsome, I am sure they didn’t do as well as we did, but they tried their best. Tomorrow—Iraq.
Late on the evening of October 19 our band of ten landed at COB Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq. Formerly, it was FOB Speicher but because of its size it was reassigned as a COB (contingency operating base). Former to that, it was Al Sahra Airfield under Saddam Hussein. Tikrit, of course, is famous for being the hometown of Saddam Hussein. Getting off the plane it was the first of many surreal moments we experienced in-theater—a bunch of middle-aged cartoonists were standing on the sands of Tikrit, Iraq.
An early morning lobby call had us prepared for a long day of travel and drawing. We again split into two groups, each visiting two FOBs located in northern Iraq. I was assigned to Team Alpha consisting of Jeff Keane, Garry, Stephan, and Chip Bok. Our transportation: Blackhawk helicopters.
Team Alpha’s first stop, FOB Q-west. Once an Iraqi airstrip, now the base provides logistical support and escort convoys from Turkey and other northern places into Iraq, among other responsibilities. We received a short tour, met with camp command, and got a chance to see some extremely cool military equipment such as armored Humvees and M-RAPs. We then met with the troops stationed there for two hours in the DFAC. This was our first experience drawing troops in the war zone. Once again, we were met with the same overwhelming sense of appreciation for our time and our visit from the soldiers. What we were doing was such a small thing compared to what they do every day.
Next stop on the tour itinerary: FOB Marez near Mosul. We met soldiers and drew for several hours at the DFAC. That DFAC was the site of the single deadliest attack on American soldiers in Iraq. In 2004, a suicide bomber disguised as an Iraqi security guard killed 22 people including 14 soldiers. A very sobering thought, but it didn’t stop the chuckles and laughs the day we were there.
After returning for the night to COB Speicher, we packed up in the morning to leave for Baghdad. Our transport this time was a prop engine C-130 Globemaster. It was a short flight from Tikrit to Camp Victory in Baghdad. After settling in, we were off to the first of three drawing sessions. The first was at the “Oasis” DFAC at Camp Liberty. They say the way to a soldier’s heart is though his stomach, and the Army takes that seriously. The biggest, most comfortable, and best-supplied structures in all the camps we visited were the mess halls. All ten of us set up in an ancillary room off the main dining hall to do our thing.
The next session was the main event of the week. We set up in the main foyer of the Al-Faw Palace beneath a giant American flag. The crowd was huge. We drew, literally, 240 soldiers and personnel, including a lot of Special Forces and intelligence folks. In fact, a lot of them were unable to tell us what it was they specifically did. I drew a special request to be given as a birthday present to one of the original Rangers who led Special Forces missions, like hostage rescues. This guy is a genuine American hero and it was a pleasure for me to draw a picture of him.
Our final drawing stop saw us split into two groups again. My group visited a DFAC in East Liberty, where we drew until about 9 p.m. This was our last chance to meet and spend time with the troops.
The next day before we left, we were given tours of Saddam’s “victory over America” Palace (funny, that one was never finished) and the Ba’ath Party Complex. It was fascinating to see the places that I had read about in the news.
On the long trip home we all agreed that the experience was amazing and fulfilling. We were all sorry to see the tour come to end. I hope we brought some laughter and fun to the folks we met. I am sure that no matter how much they thought we did for them, we got back twice as much in return. Thank you.
–Tom Richmond is a member of The National Cartoonists Society, a group that drew over 1,550 cartoons for soldiers and personnel in Germany, Kuwait, and Iraq during their 2009 tour. To read the cartoonists’ blog accounts of the 2009 NCS-USO Tour, please visit www.USO.org.