By Capt. Murray Shugars, 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined ArmsNovember 4, 2009
CONTINGENCY OPERATING LOCATION Q-WEST, Iraq - Five popular cartoonists and caricaturists on a tour sponsored by the United Service Organizations and the National Cartoonists Society entertained troops at the main dining facility at Contingency Operating Location Q-West Oct. 20.
Garry Trudeau, Jeff Keane, Stephan Pastis, Chip Bok and Tom Richmond spent from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. talking with and drawing for long lines of service members.
"We deeply appreciate visits like this," said Lt. Col. William B. Smith, Jr., mayor of Q-West and native of Hattiesburg, Miss. "Their drawings entertained the troops, but they showed they cared by talking with the troops, by listening. This was a great stress reliever."
The five visitors were among 10 artists on a weeklong tour of bases in the region, said Jeremy Wilcox, tour manager out of the USO World Headquarters in Arlington, Va.
The trip began in Germany with visits to Ramstein Air Base and the Wounded Warrior Center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl. In Kuwait, the tour stopped at Camp Virginia, Camp Buehring and Ali Al Salem Air Base, and spent two days in Iraq, said Wicox.
The 10 artists divided into two groups so the tour could visit as many bases as possible, said Wilcox.
"We try to make sure both groups have a balance of caricaturists and cartoonists so we can take advantage of everybody's strengths," said Wilcox.
Command Sgt. Major Perry Campbell, 2nd Battalion, 198th Combined Arms out of Senatobia, Miss., said the event lifted the spirits of the troops.
"Our Soldiers really enjoyed the cartoonists, and the entertainment was a great morale booster," said Campbell, a Senatobia, Miss., native. "I think most of them will be sending these drawings home to bring a smile to their families. Mr. Bok did a funny drawing of me that I'm going to send to my wife so she can laugh at it."
Bok, an editorial cartoonist from Akron, Ohio, said he wanted to come to Iraq for a long time.
"I wanted to embed early in the war, to actually see first-hand what it's really like over here, but I was unable," said Bok. "Instead, I sat in my office and read about it in the paper, on the Internet, watched it on the news. I am glad to come here finally. Being here makes it real, helps me understand the conditions on the ground."
Tom Bok said that he was grateful to bring cheer to the troops.
"Drawing satirical cartoons is pretty much a negative art," said Bok. "My job is to tear things down, so I am happy to get the chance to give a drawing, to make someone feel good."
One Soldier Bok cheered up was Capt. John L. Moore, officer-in-charge of badging for the 2/198th Mayor Cell.
"I enjoyed sitting down for a few minutes and talking to Mr. Bok," said Moore, of Caledonia, Miss. "He was very supportive of the military. I'm sending my family the drawing he did of me. My wife and kids will get a kick out of that. I had a great time, and it was a great event."
Tom Richmond, satirical illustrator for Mad Magazine, said that he felt a strong conviction to participate in this tour.
"I had personal reasons for wanting to come," said Richmond, a native of Burnsville, Minn. "I wanted to give something back to people risking their lives in the service of our country. I can't give much, my time and talent, but I feel privileged to give what I can."
First Lt. Krishina Y. Turnipseed, billeting officer-in-charge for the Mayor Cell, said she waited an hour for the chance to meet one of the cartoonists.
"They were very popular, considering how long the lines were," said Turnipseed, from Starkville, Miss. "I think it was very generous that they came. They put themselves in harm's way to support us, and it was a great event."
Jeff Keane, who draws "The Family Circus," a cartoon his father Bill Keane created, said that it was important to show support for the troops.
"It's really a minor thing for a bunch of cartoonists to come work like this for people dedicating their lives for the country," said Keane, current president of the National Cartoonists Society and native of Laguna Hills, Calif. "'Family Circus' is like a little bit of home, and I'm grateful to share it."
Drawing pictures of Jeffy, the character his father based on him, Keane said this entertainment tour was something of a family tradition.
"My dad went to Vietnam and did drawings for the troops, and it stuck with me all these years, him doing that. So I was determined to follow lead, and in my role as president of the NCS, I gave this tour as much support as I could," said Keane.
The cartoonists seldom see each other, so the tour was both a reunion and a time of fellowship, said Keane.
"Being a cartoonist is an isolated life, so having 10 days to be together with fellow cartoonists is wonderful," said Keane. "We hear all these incredible stories from the troops, and we get together each night and share the stories we've heard. It's inspirational for us, and we get a lot out of it."
This willingness to ask questions and listen to the answers pleasantly surprised Capt. J.J. Hatcher, officer-in-charge of the 2/198th CAB Mayor Cell water team.
"Jeff Keane was so personable," said Hatcher of Clarksville, Tenn. "While he was drawing, he asked about my family and about me. He asked me about my schooling and my military training, about my civilian job and how well my military training prepared me for the job I'm doing here. It was a good conversation, and I was surprised that he really seemed to listen. The whole event was great for morale. I'm sending the drawing he did of Jeffy home to my wife who loves 'The Family Circus.'"
Stephan Pastis, creator of "Pearls Before Swine," said that the tour would have a powerful impact his ideas and writing.
"Every experience you have affects you, and the greater the experience the greater the affect," said Pastis, a native of Santa Rosa, Calif. "This visit is going to have a significant impact on my writing. It gives me many ideas I would not have had otherwise."
Pastis said that he left a nine-year career as a lawyer to become a full-time cartoonist, a career change for which he had no formal training.
"I am a much better writer than an artist," said Pastis. "I see myself first as a writer. There's a saying in cartooning, 'Good writing will carry bad art, but good art will not carry bad writing.'"
Garry Trudeau, creator of 'Doonesbury,' said that the tour directly relates to current developments in his comic strip, especially in the recent story of longstanding character, B.D., now an Iraq War amputee.
"The story of wounded veterans is important to me, and that's been my focus" said Trudeau. "B.D.'s injuries gave me a relevant, respectful and creative way to enter the lives of wounded warriors. It may seem illogical, but it allows me to draw further attention to serious results of this war, such as the common traumatic brain injury. With B.D.'s rehabilitation in Veteran centers, I can describe the nature of the sacrifice some of our countrymen and women are making in our name."
Trudeau, a native of New York City, said that doors opened immediately after he published the strip in which an explosion injures B.D. in the First Battle of Fallujah.
"The day after B.D. got injured, the (Department of Defense) phoned and invited me to visit Walter Reed (Army Medical Center)," said Trudeau. "I guess they wanted to make sure that I described the rehabilitation process accurately, and the story of B.D.'s injuries has helped me earn people's trust. Visiting with wounded vets, my goal is to entertain, using humor as a way to keep despair at bay, of making difficult subjects bearable. It's a challenge for a satirist, for mostly we cause pain; we don't describe pain. For my writing, this has been a rolling experiment in naturalism. This is a fantastic experience for me."
The tour is also field research for Trudeau, he said, to help him tell stories of service members.
"My characters are the tools of my craft and nothing more. I try to build them sturdy, but I remain dispassionate about them. After all, B.D. loses a leg, which is an awful thing to do to a character but useful for what it allows me to explore and say. I do a fair amount of research in creating a country for my characters to inhabit, and that's one of the reasons this visit is so important to me. Being here helps me achieve my ultimate purpose, which is to tell the stories of people sacrificing for us. I can ask questions and hear their stories."
Capt. Bob Sayle, safety officer for 2/198th CAB and Q-West, said he had more respect for the cartoonists because of the visit.
"I really appreciate them coming over here, well-known cartoonists stopping here to show us they care," said Sayle, a native of Lake Cormorant, Miss. "They are going where the troops are and seeing how we live, and that gives me a lot more respect for them, especially for someone like Trudeau because for the past years he has been doing a lot of stories about the military."
Maj. John Herd, director of Morale, Welfare and Recreation for the 2/198th Mayor Cell, said the event was the best he has seen in two deployments.
"The USO really sent us a great entertainment event," said Herd, a Florence, Miss., native. "This turned out to be more of a success than I anticipated. During my two deployments, one to Afghanistan and now in Iraq, this was the highest quality event I have experienced. The troops had the chance to spend one-on-one time with their favorite cartoonist, and the cartoonists focused on the troops, asking questions and really listening to the answers. This was a class act."