The group at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. R to L: Bruce Higdon,
Jeff Bacon, Me, Rick Kirkman, Jeff Keane, Stephan Pastis and one of our NNMC guides
So now I am rested and recovered (mostly) from the NCS/USO trip to Landstuhl, Germany to visit wounded U.S. soldiers with a group of cartoonists. Prior to flying out to Germany, we spent Monday last week visiting recovering soldiers in the D.C. area.
Our group in D.C. consisted of trip organizer Jeff Bacon (“Broadside”/Naval Times), NCS President Jeff Keane (“The Family Circus”), Rick Kirkman (“Baby Blues”), Bruce Higdon (“Punderstatements””/Freelance caricaturist), Stephen Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”) and myself. This is a fun group of talented cartoonists, and needless to say we were cracking jokes (and each other up) all week long.
On Monday the 29th we left our hotel in Silver Spring, MD and traveled to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. This is a center of excellence for head trauma and other serious wounds, and is one of the principal places of surgery and treatment for soldiers just back from action as well as continuing treatment for complicated injuries. Our guides escorted us to the patient wards to see some of these brave wounded kids.
The way it works is this: the patients are told who we are and asked if they’d like us to visit. Then a list is created for us of the people who would like to see us. We are brought to their rooms and briefed prior to entering on their names, rank, injuries, when and where it happened, their state of mind and mood at the time and if they have any family there as well. In some cases we had to get “gowned up” in surgical scrubs and gloves so we did not bring in any infections or other bugs into the patient’s area. We had five patients our list. We were not allowed to take our own pictures, but they got pictures with us for them to keep.
I was at a bit of a disadvantage within the group. The others had a character they could draw. I did not, unless you include Alfred E. Neuman. I did a few Alfreds later, but what I mostly did was caricatures of the soldiers and staff. I was worried about that, as I was afraid I’d have to decide if I should or should not include some of the ghastly injuries that would be obvious on them. As it happened, few of the soldiers had any head traumas, so I could draw their faces and not have to address their injuries. Actually my caricatures ended up being a pretty big hit with most of the folks we saw. Bruce also drew caricatures and occasionally his army character. Chip also did some caricatures of either the patient or some politicians like Bush, Clinton or Obama. The others did their strip characters and added the name or some reference to the subject.
Our first visit was to Keith, a young man from Maryland who was a victim of a suicide bomber in Iraq. He was in a meeting with 24 other military personnel when the suicide bomber entered and blew himself up. Keith and one other soldier were the only survivors. His legs were shattered from the knees down and both were in “halo” apparatuses with multiple pins going straight from the surrounding metal into the bones to support the legs. Keith’s prognosis wasn’t bad, and it looked like he was going to keep his legs and be able to walk on them again eventually. He was a very upbeat young man, and really seemed like he was not going to let this stop him from going on in life. We all drew for him and asked him about his experience and life.
Our next soldier was very different. His name was Stan and he was from Oklahoma. He was part of a special forces unit in Afghanistan and was shot when he tussled with an enemy who he wanted to capture alive for intelligence reasons. The man ended up getting hold of Stan’s gun and in the struggle Stan was shot in the ankle by his own high powered weapon from an 8 inch range. The bullet entered his ankle and traveled downward striking the main ankle bones. There it was somehow stopped, and did not exit the bottom of his foot but spun around in there destroying the bones and ankle tissue. Stan saved his own life by first killing his enemy, then applying a tourniquet and injecting himself with morphine before passing out. Had he bullet exited his foot he likely would have had less bone damage but would have bled to death in the field. It was a little chilling to listen to him casually talk about killing this man in personal combat, as well as lamenting how his team was still over there killing people and how he wanted to be nowhere else but back there with them… especially considering his mom was sitting just a few feet away. Stan may still lose his foot, but right now he has feeling and blood flow to it so it is a matter of figuring out how to replace the bones, which were pulverized. Stan still has many surgeries ahead of him.
Our next soldier we were not able to see as he has a sudden procedure he needed. His name was Jose and his family was originally from Mexico City. We instead met his mother and 3 year old son in a lounge area. They didn’t speak much English but we got by. We all did drawings for the boy and his dad for later. The mom was very appreciative. She cried at the end.
John from Kansas was next. He was there with his mother. He had been seriously wounded in August when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (I.E.D.) in Iraq. He was clearly on heavy meds and “out of it”, but responded some and shared his story. He was evacuated to Landstuhl with his lower body shredded and his life was in doubt for some time. He stabilized and was sent to Bethesda. He is missing one leg below the knee and the other is full of pins and in a “halo”. I believe he also had a brain injury. He also has many surgeries ahead of him. John’s mom was there with him and she told us about how she was almost sent by the U.S. Military to Germany to see her son, but he stabilized at the last moment and she waited for him in the U.S. instead. sending the family of a soldier to Landstuhl is bad news… it means they do not expect the soldier to live for long. No soldier’s family wants to be sent to Landstuhl from the U.S.
Our last soldier was a Marine named Derrick. This young man was a medical textbook in the flesh. He told us of multiple bullet wounds, showed us large pieces of his sides and shoulders that were simply gone. He was missing one leg all the way up to his pelvis. He had been patched up and put back on the front lines several times until an explosion from an I.E.D. took his leg and most of his right side and forward torso. He had the abdominal muscles of another man, transplanted via several of the 129 surgeries he’s had so far.
He is 21 years old.
What could we say to these men? We just talked to them. Asked about their injuries and what life was like in the war zone. We asked about their families and where they were from, what they wanted to do and what was next for them. Some of them were familiar with our cartoons and some where not, but I think they all appreciated our time with them and just talking. We drew cartoons for them, I did caricatures of them and we all took a picture and signed things. Several of the artists had books with them they signed and gave the soldiers. Basically we just spent time with them. We brought on a few smiles. I wish I would have arranged to have a lot of MAD Magazines with me. Next time I will do that if I have to personally pay for them to be shipped.
After that we went to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where our first stop was the Mologne House, a housing unit where recovering soldiers stayed when being treated for their injuries or illnesses. Walter Reed is best known for their amputee work and therapy. Most of the soldiers we saw there were in much better shape than those in Bethesda and had older injuries, mostly recovered and just working on their therapy. We set up in a dining area and signed books, drew cartoons and talked with folks. We were pressed for time on our schedule, however, so we didn’t get as much time as we’ have liked there. I met a nice young man nicknamed “Z” who wanted to be a cartoonist, and drew a picture of Alfred for him. He was missing a large part of his skull on the right side that had to be removed after a head trauma caused his brain to swell. I also met a soldier named Grant who’s two daughters I drew from pictures. He was from Maryland and got sick in Iraq with some unknown disease. It was interesting to hear that bullets and bombs are far from the only cause of damage to soldiers in the middle east. There are lots of diseases and bugs floating around out there, and it’s not hard to get seriously ill from insect bites or ingesting local food and water. Grant also hinted that some of the soldiers back from the war are being treated for problems that are self inflicted… “When they say their are no ‘chemical weapons’ being used in Iraq, they are wrong” he told me with a serious look. He’s talking about drugs, of course.
When then went for a short walk across the grounds to the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC), one of the main facilities for physical therapy for amputees at Walter Reed. Here we went to a therapy room full of soldiers missing various limbs where they are doing their exercises and therapy work. Everybody has missing body parts, and were working hard to deal with their new disabilities as best they could. I spent most of the short time we had there working on three large posters we all did drawings on for the various centers themselves, but did get a chance at the end to meet with a few soldiers there. One was named Ryan, who had lost both his legs and a good portion of his forearms and hands from a I.E.D in Tikrit. He was just finishing up and ready to head home. He was working on driving training, where he is learning to drive a specially equipped vehicle with hand accelerator and brakes. His many missing fingers makes than pretty hard to do. He liked his caricature.
It was hard to see these young men and women hurt and disabled like this is the prime of their lives… before they had really had a chance to get started. Despite the difficulties they face, most just wanted to get back to their buddies and their units more than anything. There was some sadness, frustration and anger… but also determination. We tried our best to make them smile and more importantly to tell them this country is proud and grateful of them, no matter what anyone might think of the war itself. I think the small amount of time we shared and the drawings we did brightened a few faces… at least I like to think so.
We were then whisked off to Dulles to catch our flight to Europe. This is getting long. I will write about our time in Germany tomorrow.
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