The annual member business meeting of the National Cartoonists Society takes place early on Saturday morning at each NCS Reuben Awards weekend, and it’s usually filled with equal parts routine and contention… but every once and a while something is brought up that ends up being something special.
At the meeting in 2007 in Orlando, cartoonist Jeff Bacon stood up and what he had to say started something very special.
Jeff is a retired Navy captain and the creator of the cartoon “Broadside” for the Naval Times. His question was “what is the NCS doing to show support for the members of the U.S. military serving in the war zones and elsewhere?”. He and some local cartoonists had organized some trips to draw for wounded veterans at stateside military hospitals and rehab centers, but he wanted the NCS board to get involved and get some groups to do a little bit more.
NCS president Jeff Keane, with his usual shrewd insight, put the ball in Jeff’s court and told him to “go ahead and work on that”. Unlike a lot of people who have no problem suggesting ideas as long as they don’t have to spend time implementing them, Jeff did just that. Finding private funding and enlisting the USO to guide it, Jeff brought a proposal for a trip with 8 NCS cartoonists to visit the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and Ramstein AFB in Germany to draw for wounded warriors and hospital/CASF staff. I was lucky enough to be a part of that group, and we were such a hit with the troops the USO offered to pick up the tab and start funding multiple trips a years for cartoonist groups to go overseas and entertain military servicemen and servicewomen.
Last year in October we took the next step and I was a part of a group of 10 cartoonists who went again to Germany but this time also to Kuwait and Iraq to draw for soldiers in the war zone. During that trip there was a lot of discussion as to where we could go next, and the next logical step was into the more active war zone in Afghanistan. It was obvious to the group that things were escalating in that area of the world… unlike the previous year when the answer most soldiers gave to where they had been injured was “Iraq”, most of the wounded soldiers we drew in DC at Walter Reed or the Bathesda Naval Hospital and Landstuhl were hurt in Afghanistan. It was thought that the troops stationed there were probably in need of a few smiles. The ball was already rolling at that point for a trip into a much more active war zone the next year.
The Tour Begins
On November 5th, a group of six NCS cartoonists met up with two USO guides and a USO photographer in Washington DC, and headed out on a week long trip with a stop again in Landstuhl before going on into Afghanistan. The group included Jeff Keane (The Family Circus), Rick Kirkman (Baby Blues) Mike Luckovich (Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist), Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) and myself.
The number one question I got asked about the trip was “am I nervous about going?”. My standard answer was “If Jessica Simpson can do it, I certainly can.”… and in reality I wasn’t nervous in the slightest. Yes, we are issued body armor and briefed on security issues, but we are really never in areas that are not extremely secure… not to mention we are surrounded at all times by several thousand troops with automatic weapons. Really the only times we are exposed to possible harm is when we are in transit between bases via helicopter, and again the locations we are traveling to and from are not front line or high risk areas… at least that’s what I tell my wife. Besides, I always make sure all the other cartoonists are wearing brighter colors than I am just in case.
Our intrepid band of cartoonists arrived in Frankfurt, Germany on Nov. 6th and traveled an additional 1 1/2 hours to Landstuhl via bus. Once there we almost immediately headed to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to draw wounded soldiers and hospital staff. Most of the group had been there twice before, and I have written extensively out those trips here and here, so I won’t get too detailed about our third visit this time. The time we spend drawing the injured soldiers is by far the hardest and most gut-wrenching of our tours. Some of these kids are hurt badly, and will be facing life long challenges because of their injuries. We are there to try and bring a smile to their faces, but it’s sometimes hard to feel funny when you are staring these kinds of realities in the face… literally. We toured several wards as always and met and drew a lot of brave men and women, but two stood out on this trip.
Rick “Baby Blues” Kirkman and I draw for U. S. Army
SGT Jason “Ten Second” Gilbert of East Lake, OH
One was U. S. Army SGT Jason Gilbert of East Lake, OH, who had been injured, like so many others we saw, by an improvised explosive device (IED). He had injuries to his right leg and face… not too severe as he still HAD a right leg unlike a lot of less lucky soldiers. He was in good spirits and enjoyed out visit. Speaking of lucky, SGT Gilbert told us his nickname was “Ten Second Gilbert” because he had a propensity for running into IEDs almost immediately upon going out into the field. When asked how many IED explosions he’d been involved in, his answer was staggering.
SEVENTEEN?!? Are you kidding me?? Don’t you think after three or four you’d be pushing papers at some desk somewhere? The fact is that most of these soldiers would rather be back there with their buddies and unit doing what they were trained to do. Many of the wounded we meet on these tours only want to get patched up and get back to duty… they look on their absence as letting their pals down by not being there with them. Incidentally while I was drawing him I considered telling a joke about his nickname involving a different reason for being called “Ten Second Gilbert”… but I elected not to go there. Probably a good thing because he might have had to kill me.
Drawing for a Wounded Warrior (Well Stephan’s still drawing, the rest of us are done)
The other soldier we met that sticks out in my mind was a 22 year old man who had been shot through the lungs, ruining one and damaging the other. His life was saved thanks to a recently developed portable extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine that was invented there in Landstuhl and was used for the first time on him. The machine literally replaced the functions of the lungs by processing the blood through a membrane adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, and then reintroducing the blood into the body, totally bypassing the lungs. The wounded soldier was unconscious while we visited, so I just drew a caricature of a sibling of his from a picture while we chatted with his mother who was by his side. It was an inspirational story, and hopefully this young man will be okay.
Meet the Cartoonists!
Later that night we drew at the Warrior Center nearby, and the next morning we drew at the fantastic Kaiserslautern Military Community Center (KMCC) adjacent to the Ramstein air terminal.
(Mis)Adventures with Afghanistan Air
We were originally scheduled to fly out of Ramstein AFB early in the afternoon on Sunday, Nov. 7th, but military flights are ever changing, canceling and rescheduling. The term “hurry up and wait” certainly applies, and to say our getting out of Germany and to Afghanistan was chaotic would be an understatement. Our original flight was rescheduled in advance to 9:30 that evening, which allowed us some time to draw at the USO center in the air terminal. About 10 minutes into our 4:00 pm signing one of our USO guides stopped the event because our 9:30 flight had been changed and we were now leaving in half an hour! So we quickly packed up, gathered all our stuff and our armor gear, went through security screening, loaded up on a bus, went out to the C-17 we were taking for the 7 hour flight and strapped in. 45 minutes of sitting there later we were informed the plane had an electrical problem so we got off and schlepped all our stuff back to the terminal.
We stuck around waiting to see if the needed parts could be found and the plane fixed in time for the flight to leave by the 10 pm flight cutoff time (The German government requires a special waiver approval for US military flights to depart later than 10 pm). Eventually we were called back as the plane had been fixed and we were ready to depart. So, we once again went through security screening, loaded up on a bus and went out to the C-17. We were still sitting on the bus when we were informed the flight crew could not take the flight as their duty time would be exceeded if they took off so much later than scheduled, so the flight was scrubbed. Once again we schlepped all our stuff back to the terminal, and this time took off for our lodging as the likelihood of getting a replacement flight crew lined up AND the special waiver for late takeoff was remote. We took all of our luggage back to our rooms and boarded the bus to go get some dinner, when a group of soldiers came out of another lodging building and began to board a bus with a bunch of flight gear. One of the cartoonists went over to talk to them… turns out they were the unlikely replacement flight crew for our flight. So, we ONCE AGAIN got all our bags from the rooms, went back to the terminal and checked in for the flight. This time we had 50 minutes before we were going to be boarding, and we all needed a beer… BADLY. We headed across the street to a sports bar at the KMCC, and ran into the original flight crew enjoying a few beverages of their own.
Some of our original flight crew in Kaiserslautern
Eventually we actually did take off for Afghanistan.. at about 1 am. Our 7 hour flight put us in Kandahar at about 11:30 local time. The flight over in the C-17 was pretty uncomfortable… no pretzels or drinks at all. Also it was about 45 degrees in the cavernous cabin, and we were unprepared both for the cold or for trying to sleep on the metal deck of the plane. I found a wool blanket wedged between two seats but that was the only one anyone could find. I used it for about 2 hours until I took pity on “Pearls Before Swine” cartoonist Stephen Pastis who lay shivering on the freezing metal floor, and gave up the blanket. It eventually got passed around to a few of the cartoonists, but nobody got much rest on that flight. Or pretzels.
Jeff enjoys first class in the C-17…
Tune in tomorrow for part two of our series: In Afghanistan!