Did this sketch on the bus in Germany…
Our day at the National Naval Medical Center and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center got cut short because our flight out to Europe left at 6:30 p.m. that night from Dulles. So the six of us were whisked to the airport and boarded our flight on United, headed to London’s Heathrow airport. There we had a two hour wait until our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt departed. We landed at the Frankfurt airport at about 11:30 a.m. local time, which was 5:30 a.m. Washington time.
A lot went on with our group during our travels, and during what little free time we had on the trip. I’m not going to go into those stories here or it would take hours to read this post. I’d like to concentrate just on the sequence of events and spend the time describing the area and the facilities and people we met. Sorry… it all makes for some great stories but this is going to be long enough.
At the airport we met up with the USO Europe folks who would be our escorts and guides during our time in Germany. A USO rep brought us through the airport to the USO center… a large trailer in the pickup area of the airport. Here we hooked up with Mike Peters and Chip Bok, both of whom had been traveling together with their wives and others in France and flew in earlier that morning for this part of the tour.
I’ve got to take a quick second to describe the dynamic of this group of cartoonists. Traveling with people you do not know well can sometimes be a trying series of misadventures. This could not have been farther from the case here. I had met some of these folks before, some briefly and some for a little bit longer, but some I had basically never met at all. Despite that, it was like getting together with a bunch of brothers or longtime friends you just hadn’t seen in a few months. We all settled in quickly, and in short time the laughs were flowing. In their own fields each of these guys is top notch, yet there was no evidence of egos or one-upmanship. We mercilessly ribbed one another, cracked jokes and slung one liners. Maybe it’s just that at heart we are all a bunch of kids who never grew up, and kids can make friends at the drop of a hat. Whatever the reason, it was quickly apparent there would be no problems getting along. I was personally in awe of the quick wit and talent of everyone in the group. I was honored to be included.
Dinner in Landstuhl- From far left clockwise around table: Jake Jacobs, Chip
Bok, Bruce Higdon, Rick Kirkman, Stephan Pastis, Jeff Keane, Mike Peters,
Jeff Bacon. I’m taking the picture.
Our liaison, driver and main guide was a gentleman named Jake Jacobs. He pulled up outside the USO center in a half sized blue transport bus and we piled in for another one and a half hours of travel to the small town of Landstuhl, in the south west corner of Germany near the border to France. Jake was good-natured and an excellent guide, speaking fluent German. He also took our ribbing in stride. He dropped us off at our lodging, The Hotel Christine, right in the heart of Landstuhl. We each took a well needed short rest and cleaned up before heading out for dinner. We had no plans for the evening outside of our own free time. Wednesday we would start our visit to the military medical facilities. We did, however, manage to find a local pub where we would spend our evenings (and Euros) unwinding.
Wednesday, October 1st
The Gang at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center
The next morning at 10:30 we headed out to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC). Operated by the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense, LRMC is the largest military hospital outside the continental U.S. I was told there are over 7,000 military personnel on staff and over 50,000 extended family members living on the base (including Ramstein Air Force Base next door) and in the area, which makes it the largest community of U.S. citizens not on U.S. soil. LRMC acts as the main center for treatment of wounded soldiers coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. The basic purpose of the center is to treat the injuries of the incoming soldiers to stabilize and prepare them to be sent back to the states for ongoing and more comprehensive treatment. In most cases soldiers only stay at LRMC for a few days. The quick turnaround of incoming and outgoing soldiers is staggering.
Our first stop was… LUNCH! We ate in the main ER cafeteria, where the Stars and Stripes newspaper and Armed Forces Radio media folks interviewed Jeff Keane and Mike Peters. We were munching down our grub (that’s military jargon, soldier!) when Army Lt. Gen. Ken Hunzeker, V Corps commander sat down with us. Gen. Hunzeker was quite a guy, laughing and cracking jokes with us while we did some drawings for him. He also shared with us what some of these soldiers we were here to see have been through and how great he thought it was we were there to brighten their day. I drew a caricature of the General and he didn’t order me to drop and give him twenty, so I guess he thought it was okay. Actually he laughed hard, as he did with all the cartoons he received. The General then gave us all challenge coins from his command unit. Challenge coins are heavy, 2 inch diameter coins that range from beautiful reliefs, engraving and enameled surfaces to intricate die cuts and sculptured interiors. They are given to those serving in a given unit and to those who provide a special service or function for the unit. I received four challenge coins on the trip, one from the Mologne House, one from the USO Europe, one from Lt. Gen. Hunzeker and another one later. These are prized possessions and will be displayed in my studio.
Jeff Keane drawing at LRMC
Chip Bok and Stephan Pastis draw for the LRCM staff
Upon finishing up lunch we were split up into two groups of four and set out with our own LRMC escorts to visit patients and staff in the hospital. My team included Jeff K., Chip, Stephan and myself. The funny thing was we did a lot more visiting of staff than we did of soldiers, with two exceptions. Our guide explained that the people who make LRMC run work hard and don’t get much in the way of thanks. Throughout the day we met and drew for surgeons, nurses, technicians, cooks, pharmacy personnel and other military staff. These are the sometimes overlooked people who help these hurt men and women, in many cases saving their lives and sending them back home to family. It was a delight to get to give something back to them as well. Chip and I did caricatures while Jeff and Stephan did great drawings of their characters and personalized them to each recipient. Everybody loved it.
Jeff Bacon did a caricature of a gall stone
We went from area to area. At one point we met up with two soldiers who were being cared for non-combat illness, which they almost seemed embarrassed about. With all the soldiers serving in the middle east, there are many incidents of things like gall stones, heart attacks, accidents and disease that strike down the soldiers as surely as bullets. We also met up with a young couple who had just given birth to twin girls. Dad was a soldier who was going back “down range” in a few weeks but had managed to be there for the happy occasion. It was nice to see two people in this place for a happy reason.
Chip, me and Rick Kirkman drawing away
We tried to visit the surgical ward but got shooed out by an impatient officer, and ended up in the staff break room. There I drew a lot of nurses and surgical staff. They were a lot of fun. They kept saying how great it was to get to visit with “celebrities” (which we snorted at…none of us felt much like celebrities) as usually they are ignored and the visitors spend all the time with the patients. Actually we were told visitors often don’t do much more than get a photo, sign an autograph and then move on. We actually spent time with the folks we visited… drawing takes time and we talked with them and asked all sorts of questions about their families, service and their lives. I think they liked that as much as the doodles we did.
Eventually we made it up to the ICU, where we saw a few seriously wounded soldiers. The first young man we saw told us a story of how he had been serving in Afghanistan and was in his tent taking a little R&R playing a video game when a projectile explosive hit. He was missing a part of one leg and the other was damaged. Chip did a hilarious drawing of him playing his video game which was exploding and he was thinking “Man, this video game is so realistic!” That sounds a little insensitive but the fact is these guys like to talk about their injuries, how they happened and what was going on. He got a big laugh out of that. He was hurt but was going to be okay. He was in a lot of pain but I think we brought some laughs to him.
The other patient we saw was a little more serious. His name was Terry. We were not briefed on his injury or much about him, but just ushered into his dimly lit room. He was maybe 22 years old, and very badly injured from some explosion. He could only talk in one or two word sentences, and that intermittently. He had tubes coming out of both nostrils, his mouth and from all angles, and had numerous machines surrounding him. His face was partly covered by a heavy bandage pad, and his eyes were so swollen he could only partly open one of them to see us. His throat was so badly damaged he had to suck the saliva and fluids from it with a suction tube every minute or so, as he could not swallow. His limbs, face and torso were covered with shrapnel cuts and wounds. He croaked that he wanted us to draw him. I did a caricature of him, unhurt, as best I could under the circumstances. The others did their characters and Chip drew a picture of the President. He pushed them all away. He kept saying, “Draw ME. Draw ME.” Eventually we got the idea. He wanted us to draw him as he looked right then. In his bed. With the tubes and all. He wanted to remember this moment…
… so I drew him as he asked. I drew this second one from memory days later:
It was not hard to reproduce the drawing, because if I close my eyes I can see that young man lying there with his swollen eyes and bloody teeth and softly beeping machines struggling to speak projected on the back of my eyelids. It was the saddest thing I have ever seen and it fairly broke my heart.
I gave him the drawing and he looked at it for a long time. Then he clutched it to his chest and would not let the nurses take it away and put it with the others. I told him how proud we were of him, thanked him and told him “God Bless”, and then walked out of the room with him still holding the drawing tightly. I’ll never forget that. I hope he will be okay.
We ended up in the pharmacy wing where we drew personnel from that area. We met Col. Brian Lein, the commander of LRMC and got a chance to chat with him. He told me his son was a big fan of MAD. That was great to hear. I drew a lot of staff there including some of the behind-the-scenes people that the officers insisted get drawn as they were indispensable members of the team.
The Gang at the LRMC Pharmacy area
Following our day at LRMC we went back to the hotel and then to Restaurant Barbarossahof Kaiserslautern for a USO dinner with Jake, USO Kaiserslautern director Konrad Braun and the Director of Germany-USO, Mike Lewis. Mike gave us our USO challenge coins and thanked us profusely for our time and efforts over giant steins of Hefeweizen and various German foods like Sauerbraten and Spätzle.
Mike and Stephen got da big beers
Thursday, October 2nd
This was the “long day”, as Jake warned us. We started early at 8:00 a.m. and drove to the Ramstein Air Force Base. Ramstein is the headquarters of the U.S. Air Forces Europe and is a NATO installation. It serves many purposes but in part is the place where incoming and outgoing injured soldiers are received and processed to their respective destinations. Our first stop was the Ramstein Air Base Air Terminal, where we went to the USO Center to meet and greet transmit passengers and children, USO staff and volunteers.
The Gang at Ramstein USO Center
We met and drew a number of soldiers who were on their way from down range (the war zone) back to the states. I drew all the members of a National Guard communications unit and their active enlisted liaison who had hitched a ride on a C-17 from Iraq and were trying to book a civilian flight from Baltimore to their station in Peoria, IL once they got back stateside. They were departing in a few hours on a medical transport that had room to Andrews AFB in Maryland. I also did a group drawing of the six of them. I was separated from the rest of the group in the terminal when doing this and met Col. Michael Ward, commander of the 161st Medical Group. The Colonel was there as part of a group that had delivered two palettes of donations to the USO from the states, and was leaving shortly. The items they brought in- clothes, toiletries, etc.- were gratefully accepted and badly needed by the USO. I drew the Colonel and in return was given his challenge coin. He was another officer who really appreciated the little we were able to do in service to the military and their families.
We spent a short time at the local PX for lunch, which was like a small shopping mall. In the food court I thought about going the Taco Bell route but couldn’t bring myself to eat a Taco Hell bean burrito when in Germany, so I went with Burger King instead. Germany used to have a king, you know, and the Burger King character looks vaguely German. Ordinarily I don’t have any problems when traveling thanks to my cast iron stomach. However, on this trip I experienced a bit of the well known German phenomenon: Fahrfrumpoopën. That was nothing a little fiber once I got home didn’t fix, however. Thanks for the concern.
We went back to action by visiting the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF). This is the area where soldiers are sent to and from the airplane that bring them from down range or back to the states. Incoming patients are transported either directly to LRMC (critical ones) or to CASF to be processed and sent to the appropriate area. CASF has seen over 50,000 patients pass through their doors since 2003, although only 22% of them are wounded in action. Most are non-battle injuries. CASF serves as a terminal for patients waiting to get a flight or transportation to another hospital. The 95 active-duty airmen, Reserve and Guard personnel also are responsible for moving patients to and from transport aircraft.
There were only two patients in CASF at the time. We started on a tour by a Major but I screwed that up by starting to draw one of the staff when visiting the USO lounge part way through the tour. This soldier told me he was a big fan of MAD and actually knew my name and that I had done the “Iron Man” parody which he loved. I drew him and that opened the flood gates… we never left that room and we all drew like maniacs. They pulled us out after an hour or so with me still trying to draw the staff. I left a poor young lady who was next in line standing there, but we were due somewhere else in short order.
I next stop was the Kleber Kaserne installation and their Warrior Transition Unit. This unit provides wounded and sick service members from the combat theater outpatient treatment. Most patients will eventually go on to other treatment facilities in the continental United States, including Walter Reed. A lot of them will return to duty — most in Iraq and Afghanistan. We set up in a lounge area and drew the soldiers and their families, including a lot of kids. Nobody here was seriously hurt, so it was a lot less intense. we had dinner at the mess hall and headed back to CASF.
CASF was expecting about 16 soldiers in for processing that evening on their way back to the U.S. the next morning. Processing involves meeting and getting clearance from a doctor, filing paperwork and preparing any special needs for the long trip back home. Men and women then spend the night in one of the bays filled with beds and equipment and then fly out the next morning. We were to meet these soldiers as they were being processed and spend some time with them. I drew as many as possible. We also met Col. Donald Bacon, the new commander of the 435th ABW, meaning he’s in charge the entire medical base complex. I drew the Colonel and had a fascinating conversation about the details of “The Surge” and what it really did and meant.
One of the bays at CASF, with beds awaiting soldiers
It was getting pretty late when Colonel Lein showed up, this time with his son the MAD fan in tow. I signed a copy he brought with and drew his caricature as well. As the night wrapped up I finally drew two young ladies who I missed getting to do earlier at CASF, including the one who was left next in line that afternoon. These two stayed on site after their shift just to get a caricature from me. I was flattered.
At 9:30 we stumbled to the bus and went back to the hotel… not too tired for the pub, though. The next day we began our trek home.
This experience was truly inspirational. These troops who depend on this facility for their very lives, and the ones who work there to save them, are true heroes. It puts things in perspective when you see these people who have dedicated their lives, and sometimes give them, to the protection of their country and the defense of freedom and liberty across the planet. Those who agree or disagree with the war itself and what it may or may not be about must agree that these brave men and women are deserving of our gratitude, our respect and our admiration. I was proud and honored to be a part of this small giving back to those who have given so much for us.