The National Cartoonists Society has a long history of supporting our US Military, particularly during times of strife. In fact, the NCS was first formed in the 1940‘s as a result of chalk talks that cartoonists got together to do for the troops during World War II. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to go on several NCS Cartoonists/USO trips over the last five years to places like Germany, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan and others. This year I went with a terrific group of talented cartoonists on a trip back to Afghanistan with a stop in Kyrgyzstan. This week I’ll be posting about our adventures “down range” (click any photos to embiggen).
Tues. Sept. 3rd- Travel
IIt takes a LOOOOOONG time to get to that part of the world. In fact, out of a nine-day trip we spend 4 just getting to and from the war zone. I left Minneapolis on Sunday evening Sept.1st, en route to Istanbul, Turkey, where I met up with the rest of our merry band and our USO tour manager. This was mostly a different group than the ones I had usually traveled with on past trips because I was actually filling in for a cartoonist who was originally scheduled but had to bow out. It was quite a gathering of talents: Ray Alma (MAD Magazine), Paul Combs (illustrator, editorial cartoonist), Bruce Higdon (Punderstatements), Jeff Keane (The Family Circus), Mason Mastroianni (B.C.), Michael Ramirez (editorial cartoonist), Ed Steckley (MAD Magazine) and myself. We try and get a mix of different kinds of cartoonists (comic strip, editorial, etc) but the USO and the soldiers we draw like caricatures because they are universal, so those who can do that and have credits in the publishing world as well are especially applicable.
From Istanbul we flew a commercial flight to Kyrgyzstan, where we were shortly transferred to a military flight out of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, headed into the “theater” of Afghanistan. First we had to be fitted with our IBAs (Individual Body Armor) which we had to either be wearing or carrying at all times when on military planes. These supposedly weighed about 25 lbs but felt like 50, especially after hauling them all over Afghanistan.
Me, Ed and Mason in full gear
Jeff and I are clearly very intimidating in our helmets
We all drew on the desk of the Manas gear tent
We flew out in a C-17, which is always really interesting as it’s a serious, working military aircraft big enough to hold hundreds of troops, about 20 palettes of supplies or even an entire Chinook helecopter. Ed and I got to sit in the cockpit during takeoff, and other artists went up during the flight to see things from the flight deck. We landed at our first destination in Afghanistan just in time to get some late dinner and crash… it took over 30 hours of flying, layovers and prep time to get to Afghanistan, and having only gotten a few cat naps along the way we were all in need of some shut eye before we got started with our busy itinerary.
Jeff Keane getting some photos in the C-17
We snagged the side seats on this flight
Wed. Sept 4th: Bagram Airfield
Our first stop in Afghanistan was at Bagram Air Field (BAF). This is a very large base in Afghanistan housing tens of thousands troops. We were met by our MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) liaison in Afghanistan and billeted in some funky plywood huts where many of the USO entertainers stay. Accommodations on the bases can run from a tent in the rocks to a fairly permanent trailer-like structure, but there are relatively few permanent structures on these bases… especially Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), and basically none of them are housing. Our billets are always comfortable, however, and we’d probably sleep in trash cans anyway as we are not there for a vacation but to draw for the troops. These huts were great, actually, and they even had wifi! Communications on bases around Afghanistan have really changed since my last visit in 2010. Then, you had to go to an internet cafe or the USO or MWR center and use hardwired computers to Skype or email back home. Now there seems to be wifi all over, usually in the Dining Facilities (DFACs), the USO/MWR complexes, the major shopping areas like the PXs, and even in some of the living quarters. You can probably imagine how much of a difference it makes to a soldier deployed in a war zone for between 6 months and a year to have instant communication with family back home readily available anytime they get a chance to use it.
We had two drawing sessions at BAF. The first took place in a part of the base called the Warrior Area. Despite the well-publicized drawback from the area by US Forces, Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place. The folks at Bagram are the ones that work to keep the major highway in the country safe for goods and people to travel on. No easy task with many insurgents still intent on planting IEDs (Improvised Exploding Devices) and ambushing caravans and trucks. Things are still pretty tense in Afghanistan, and that’s why it’s so important we do these trips. For a short time, we can make these brave men and women forget about their stressful and often monotonous days in the war zone, and bring a smile to faces that could definitely use them.
We went to the USO center and drew for a few hours in the late morning. Some people wonder what in the world a bunch of cartoonists would do on a tour like this… it’s not like we are rock stars or celebrities that sign autographs and pose for pictures. What we do is set up at a table with our drawing supplies, put a chair opposite us and invite soldiers to sit down while we draw them a cartoon. Some of use do caricatures of the soldiers, some of us will draw our characters for them with some personalized element to it. That might not sound like much, and in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t, but the other thing we do does mean a lot. We sit there for 10-15 minutes with each soldier and just talk to them. We find out what they do, how long they’ve been in the military, where home is, who’s back home waiting for them to return… we let them talk about what they want to talk about, and the drawing is almost a byproduct.
I know that sounds pretty mundane, but you have to understand what these soldier’s lives are like 10,000 miles from home. They basically just work, eat, and sleep, all day, every day, for usually 9 months to a year deployment. Even the slightest of distractions is a welcome breath of fresh air to these folks. They might not ever have read MAD before, or be familiar with the comic strips some of the artists on tour, nor have seen the cartoons of the other artists, but having someone who does something other than soldiering come visit from home is something they really like and appreciate. In fact often the first thing out of the mouths of those who sit down for us are words of gratitude for us coming so far and giving of our time to spend it with them. I find this funny simply because they have no idea how important it is to US to be there, and how many NCS members are ready and eager to volunteer for these trips. We are grateful for the opportunity to visit with them.
It always perplexed me a bit after the sincere thanks we get from all the soldiers we see, even if they aren’t fans of the specific cartoons we do. Our MWR liaison finally explained it to me in a way that makes sense—it really is the simple breaking of the monotony of a soldier’s time on deployment that is so important to these folks. Imagine you are away from your family and friends for up to a year, staying in a confined space and doing the exact same thing day in and day out. Your communications to your loved ones back home are the highlights of your day… but what do you have to tell them? The same things over and over? A visit like ours gives the soldiers something to talk about, to tell family back home “these nutty cartoonists visited the base today and I got a caricature done by some guy who works for MAD Magazine”, and they go on to talk about cartoons and the experience he/she had. It really is no more than that. They ask about what we do, and we get to know what they do. We make a brief connection.
After our drawing sessions at the USO, we got the chance to visit the JOC (Joint Operations Center), where the Brigadeer General Commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Bagram briefed us on what BAF is all about, their ongoing missions and lots of fascinating facts about the base.
That evening we did a really fun drawing session on the deck of an open shopping area. Under most circumstances we set up in contained areas so no one can really watch us draw, but in this case there was an open area behind us that allowed crowds to watch the drawings happen as we do them. As a live caricaturist that is nothing new to me, but it’s unique on these trips and makes for a really fun session as we can entertain the soldiers behind us as well as do drawings for those sitting down. One of the only disadvantages of doing things as we do them is that we can only draw for so many soldiers in a typical two to three hour drawing session.
We had to hit the sack early as Thursday was going to be a seriously long day. We had a bag call at 0315 (that’s 3:15 AM for all you non-military types) to head out to our next stop: Camp Leatherneck.