Cartoonists in Afghanistan- Part 3

November 18th, 2010 | Posted in News

This was printed up as a USO Autograph Card for giving out on tour

Visting FOBs

NCS Osama Watch– No sighting. Pastis claiming 65% of any reward if we spot him

Originally each group was supposed to visit up to 6 forward operating bases (FOBs) over the three days we were spending in the Kandahar area, but due to the flight snafus we were only scheduled to visit two each. Considering how long it took us to actually GET to Afghanistan it was really too bad our time there was so short that we could’t visit more sites, but co-ordinating and promoting our visits were not easy to do, so we just made the best of the time we did get with the soldiers.

Jeff Keane and Stephan Pastis look thrilled to be back in a Black Hawk

Like our visit to Iraq last year, we flew helicopters from KAF to the various camps and FOBs. Some of our flights were in Blackhawks like in Iraq, but a number of them were in the much larger CH-47 Chinooks. These are twin rotor troop and cargo transport helicopters, and hold about 60 or so soldiers as well as room for palettes of supplies. One of the coolest moments of the trip was when we were on our way back from our first FOB visit in a Chinook, with the back door open and a rear gunner on it. We were being escorted by two Huey helicopters that criss-crossed about our larger helo… if I would have had “Ride of the Valkyries” cranking in my ear it would have been like something out of “Apocalypse Now”.

This is what Afghanistan looks like…

The helicopter flights over the Afghanistan landscape really showed how truly desolate this country is. With the exception of a few craggy hills, most of what I saw of Iraq was flat and sandy, with a fair amour of scrubby brush and vegetation. Afghanistan, at least the areas were flew over, are so lifeless it looks like it could be the moon. Looming, knife-edge mountains seem to violently burst from the endless dust with little or no foothills as warning. The earth seems to go on forever with almost no sign of a tree or plant growth whatsoever. Small villages made of mud huts scar the landscape here and there, and are the only sign of any life amid the sprawling arid miles. You can’t even really call what coats the earth here “sand”… it’s better described as a dust so fine it makes talcum powder seem like coffee grounds, and lies a foot deep in places. We got lucky with the weather, which was calm during our stay. I was told the ever-present haze can turn into a complete brown-out in the blink of an eye when a wind storm whips across the horizon.

A small Afghan village…

FOB Spin Boldak

NCS Osama Watch– No sighting, but did see guy with beard

The morning of Tuesday Nov. 9th found my team on it’s way in a Black Hawk helicopter to FOB Spin Boldak, an operating base located near the small town of the same name in the southwest of Afghanistan right on the border of Pakistan. In fact we could see into Pakistan as we stood on the edge of the base’s landing area. “Spin B” is populated by U.S. calvary units out of Fort Bragg and Germany, and run intelligence and Stryker missions in the area, among other duties. Spin B is also known as having some of the best food of any military bases in Afghanistan, as a great deal of the fresh food for military forces enters the country from Pakistan and is distributed from this FOB. I was told not to miss the mint ice cream… but I missed it.

FOB Spin Boldak

Jeff, Stephan and I set up in the camp D-FAC and drew for several hours after lunch. Most of the soldiers we drew were out of Ft. Bragg, NC. but a few were stationed at U.S. bases in Germany. A typical tour of duty in Afghanistan is 12 months with one 15 day leave available at some point during their tour. Most of the soldiers I drew at Spin B were about 1/2 way through their tour.

Drawing at Spin B

Stephen, Jeff and myself drawing the troops

Many were on their first deployment into the war zone. One thing I always asked those there for the first time was if it was what they expected. Most said it was not. They expected it to be more intense, but they found that a lot of their time was just doing the usual daily tasks that quickly become mundane, broken up by the occasional rocket attack siren or IED explosion. Mostly, these soldiers are missing home and were so grateful that we came all the way from the U.S. to spend a few hours with them to bring a little bit of home to their day. We succeeded in bringing a few smiles to their faces, which seemed a small contribution on our part but was received with a lot of thanks from the troops we drew. It’s these moments that are the reason we do this.

NCS Osama Watch– No sighting. Guy with beard was Dutch.

Our trip back to KAF was eventful. We always travel with other soldiers and cargo, as these are not VIP transports but working vehicles running various missions and we are just tagging along. The Chinook we took back was packed with soldiers and cargo. We all had our cameras out and were snapping pictures. Stephan was taking video, panning along the opposite side of the interior of the helicopter which was lined with soldiers, up towards the front where gunners manned 50 MM machine guns on either side of the aircraft. Suddenly the soldier sitting immediately next to the gunner snapped up and pointed at Stephan, yelling “NO! NO!”. When Stephan didn’t immediately shut down his camera, the guy actually started to get up out of his seat in mid-flight. Stephan turned off his camera and the guys settled down. After the flight we were told he was a British special forces guy, which you can tell by the fact that he had no rank or insignia anywhere on his uniform, and these guys don’t like having their pictures taken. Had he know that before hand, maybe Stephan wouldn’t have winked and blown him a kiss when he started yelling at him. Fortunately the guy decided not to pick a fight with him… Stephan had a fully loaded tube of hair gel at the ready in case he ran into trouble, and he knew how to use it. Getting that in your eye really stings.

Inside a Chinook

Me at Spin Boldak

A Huey taking off at sunset at the KAF

We made it back to KAF unharmed and had another drawing session that night, this time at the brand new USO center on base. What a great facility. Hardwood floors, brightly painted walls, movie posters, rows of computers, TVs and video games as well as pool tables and other ways for soldiers to unwind and relax. We quickly had a long line and drew for several hours. A lot of the soldiers we drew for here were either on their way out of Afghanistan on leave or at the end of their deployment or coming in waiting for transport to their base in-country.

Drawing at the USO Center

Stephan and Jeff busy drawing and chatting

Wednesday, Nov. 10th- My sleep patterns never really caught up with Afghanistan, which is 10 1/2 hours ahead of where I live near Minneapolis. I was up at about 4 am every day, but that gave me the opportunity to go to the Boardwalk into the 24 hour Internet Cafe to Skype back home. Talking with older soldiers who had been in the military of 15 or 20 years and had been deployed to many places all over the world, the number one thing they say that has changed to make being on the other side of the world more bearable is the availability of video chat technology like Skype. It makes a huge difference to be able to talk face to face with family and friends back home, and it’s obvious the military understands this. There are many resources for doing this, including the internet cafe I frequented… there are free options as well but they reportedly have long waits and short time limits. It cost $7 for an hour of internet time with video chat, and while the connection was somewhat slow it was adequate for Skype. It was nice to be able to see The Lovely Anna’s face as well as my kids and to let them know everything was okay, and I was only gone for a week. I can only imagine how comforting it must be for the soldiers to be able to see their loved ones often and communicate that way.

FOB Tarin Kowt

Our final FOB visit was to Tarin Kowt, which is somewhere northwest of KAF. This base in primarily populated with Australian and Dutch forces, as well as U.S. soldiers. That was interesting as we drew mostly Aussie and Dutch troops, and got a chance to ask questions about their experiences in Afghanistan. The Dutch soldiers were busy preparing to withdraw from the country, and the U.S. and Australian forces were taking over their areas. Several of the Dutch soldiers were very outspoken about getting out of Afghanistan, with many clearly thinking they should have withdrawn some time ago. FOB Tarin Kowt, or “TK” as it’s known for short, has a unit of Apache attack helicopters that were flown by Dutch pilots and ran missions over southern Afghanistan and the Australian area, known as Camp Russell, is the home of Aussie special forces units. The Dutch area is known as Camp Holland. Here’s a short news story about our visit to this FOB.

The Gunner on a Chinook

An Apache attack chopper mid-flight at Tarin Kowt

Apache coming in for a landing

I guess reading signs is not one of my stronger skills….

Yet another flight snafu left us stranded for almost four hours in the PAX area awaiting a helicopter with enough room in it to transport us back to KAF. There were several dozen other soldiers in the same predicament, sitting under a camouflage netting pavilion next to the air strip. This down time actually ended up being one of the most fun experiences I had on the trip. A couple of soldiers who missed our signing time came down from the main base with a “Pearls Before Swine” book hoping to catch us and get Stephan’s autograph as well as a drawing from Jeff and I before we left. One of them was a young lady from nearby Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. After breaking out the drawing stuff I ended up drawing for a bunch of other troops including several groups of Aussies on their way out for leave… these guys were in great mood as a result and we had a lot of fun with the drawings. I even got some of their unit patches in appreciation. Eventually we did get a seat on a Chinook headed to Kandahar… Stephan did not have any run ins with any special forces tough guys.

Impromptu drawing at the Tarin Kowt PAX

NCS Osama Watch– No sighting. Trap baited with Snicker’s bar undisturbed.

Unfortunately we were so late getting back we missed the few hours of free time we had scheduled in for dinner and maybe some souvenir shopping, and we barely got back before we were whisked away to the USO center again for another signing this time with all six of us together. We drew again for several hours in what was our last scheduled appearance.

The other group of cartoonists, Garry, Mike and Rick, visited Camp Nathan Smith on Tuesday and FOB Lagman on Wednesday. Camp Nathan Smith is located in Kandahar proper, so some of us actually did go into the city. That camp is for training Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, which is mostly done by Canadians. FOB Lagman is northwest of Kandahar in the Zabul Province, and is populated by American and Romanian forces. Here’s a news story about their visit there, and here’s a video as well.

Back Home?

In retrospect it just wouldn’t have been right if our 11:30 am flight out of Kandahar actually left as scheduled… but one could hope.

We had a “lobby call” at 8:15 to head over to the air terminal to check in for our C-17 flight back to Ramstein, and while we were standing around we had another spontaneous moment that ended uploading something I hope will bring a few smiles to some soldiers for a while to come. I was wandering around the immediate area where were meeting and went into the concrete bunker area next to our lodging door (the very place Jeff and Stephan cowered during the rocket attack that they left me for dead in) and saw that someone had done a bad graffiti drawing on the inner cement wall. Seeing as how the bunker was already defaced, I figured we might as well really ugly it up with out own drawings. So, each of us burned up a few sharpies (the tips of which didn’t last long on that surface) with some doodles and messages for the soldiers.

Caught defacing Army property!!

Jeff, Rick and I leaving our mark…

Rick brings a little “Baby Blues” to Afghanistan

Considering it happened to be Veteran’s Day, it was fortuitous timing.

Stephan doodles away…

Garry’s drawing is going to make some reservists laugh!

Me with “Pvt. No Class Neuman”

Hopefully our goofy cartoons will bring a little levity to some soldiers who might be in particularly bad need of it, considering if they are there to see them it would be because they are taking cover in a bunker and life might not be so funny right about then.

Jeff does the famous Family Circus dotted line trail… and Jeffy

Jeff, Stephan, Garry, Rick, me and Mike

Unfortunately our luck with military flights didn’t get any better that day. After arriving at the air terminal, checking in and waiting for about an hour we got bumped from our morning flight to make room for a State Dept. cargo (bumped for toilet paper no doubt… I hope it was quilted at least). The really bad news was the next flight available for us to take didn’t leave until MIDNIGHT, so we suddenly had an entire day with nothing to do. Having learned my lesson about flying overnight on a C-17, my first stop after getting some lunch was to the American BX to buy a blanket and pillow. Actually this time gave me a chance to do some drawings for our USO guides, who took great care of us and made sure we didn’t get shot. I also got some coffee… still no creamer.

NCS Osama Watch– No sighting. Trap baited with Stephen Pastis undisturbed.

Eventually we did get onto a C-17, and the cargo inside was something to see. You can see these planes are big, but you don’t realize HOW BIG until you get onboard and see an entire Chinook helicopter strapped in going home for refitting. Surreal.

That floor looks comfortable…

Travel Day from Hell

A 9 hour flight on a C-17 from Kandahar to Ramstein. A frantic 1 1/2 hour bus ride straight from Ramstein to Frankfurt as we were barely going to make our flights to the U.S. A 9 hour flight to Chicago and another hour to Minneapolis. If it wasn’t for my foresight in carrying soap, deodorant and a change of clothes I might have found myself ejected from the plane somewhere around Greenland.

According to the USO we drew over 700 cartoons for soldiers on our trip. I know I did over 100 drawings, as I had only brought 100 sheets of paper and had to break into an emergency sketchbook bought in Kaiserslautern by the end of the tour. Another safe and successful USO trip with a great group of cartoonists and another opportunity to meet a lot of the brave men and women serving our country far from home and family. I will always find time to go on one of these trips whenever I am lucky enough to be asked… it is an incredibly rewarding experience.


  1. Bearman says:

    Though I haven’t been commenting I have been following your adventures. Great thing you did and glad you are home safe.

  2. Jason says:

    Wow! This is fantastic! It sounds like a lot of effort went into this mission. Not only is this uplifting to the troops, it’s inspirational to artists. Kudos!

  3. Alex says:

    What a great story! I like living vicariously through your adventures. Man it sounds grueling over there, with the heat and sand(and imminent danger!), but I think I’d take it over the the swamps and jungles of Vietnam!

  4. Mark Tatulli says:

    Wonderful stories, Tom! Glad you guys are back safe and sound! You fellas all do us cartoonists proud! Thanks for your efforts to bring joy to the boots on the ground!

  5. Philip Willey says:

    The bunker graffiti just about made my month.

  6. Bruce Quast says:

    Tom-thanks so much to you and the rest of the group for making this trip for our troops.

  7. Steckley says:

    Way to go, buddy!

  8. Ryan Roe says:

    It’s truly wonderful that you guys do this.

  9. Dave Navarre says:

    I agree with Phil. The bunker graffitti is awesome. Thanks for raising spirits over there.

  10. Houston says:

    Thanks for all you do. I am a fan of your art and an even bigger fan of how you treat our troops.

    Rock on!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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