The 2009 NCS Cartoonist USO Tour band members:
Our 8 day USO tour began at a Washington DC area hotel on Wednesday, October 14th where most of our band met, had a quick dinner and talked about our upcoming odyssey. As usual I had a job I had to finish up that kept me working in the hotel room until 4 a.m., so I was already exhausted when we boarded a USO bus on Thursday morning to go to the Bathesda Naval Hospital and then to Walter Reed for our first visits with wounded soldiers. This part of the trip was familiar to us, as we had done the same thing almost exactly a year earlier.
Thursday, October 15th:
The Band at Bathesda Naval Hospital
Bathesda is best known as the primary center for brain related injuries, but they treat almost any kind of injury from damaged limbs from explosions to gunshot wounds. Touring these wards is particularly heart wrenching. We visit the soldiers right in their hospital rooms and they are in various stages of recovery and treatment. Sometimes they are very cognizant and lucid, and other times they are so deep under pain medication that they are hard to communicate with. Most of the soldiers we visited with were surrounded by their family members and were in the midst of or almost done with their treatments.
We split into two groups and went around to several different wards, entering the rooms of soldiers who were interested in seeing us and then drawing for them. The comic strip guys did personalized drawings of their characters, the editorial cartoonists did either Obama, Bush or caricatures of the soldiers and Bruce Higdon and I did caricatures. I did drawings of Alfred E. Neuman if asked as well. More importantly we asked questions and listened to the soldier’s story while we sketched. This dynamic is the reason the cartoonist’s groups are so popular… unlike “celebrities” who pose for a picture, given them an autograph and move on, we really spend time with these folks and give them something unique.
We all noticed that things were definitely different this time around than they were on the last trip. For starters, last time most of the wounded soldiers we visited were hurt in Iraq from a variety of combat related trauma. This time around almost all responded to our questions on how they were hurt by saying their vehicle got hit by an I.E.D. (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan. We heard some real horror stories about large armored vehicles being tossed 40 feet into the air and flipped over by these cowardly attacks.
Another difference was a lot fewer wanted to go back. Last time almost everyone just wanted to get back to their buddies and their units… they seemed to feel they were letting their fellow soldiers down despite their heroic efforts and their sacrifice. In some cases that mood had changed, especially with regard to Afghanistan. “They don’t want us there,” said one soldier who was missing one of his legs from the knee down, lost in an I.E.D explosion while on patrol. “We would ask a group of Afghans if there was any Taliban around. They would say “no”, and then shortly after we’d catch fire from some Taliban insurgents who were hiding nearby.” One particularly funny soldier, when asked if he was going to go back to duty, responded “Nope, They only get to blow me up once.” I wouldn’t say morale was down, as most of these soldiers said they loved their jobs and serving their country despite the injuries they sustained, but many didn’t feel the need to return to action. God knows they have given enough for their country.
Our job was to bring some smiles to the faces of the wounded warriors and their families. Mission accomplished, I think. We met with many people and drew a lot of drawings, and we always left them smiling and laughing. We also do not ignore the hard working staff of these hospitals, and we drew for many of them as well.
Disclaimer: Mike Peters, the creator of “Mother Goose and Grimm”, Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist and certified cartoon genius is one of my favorite people in the world. Do not think for a second that these little sidebars entitled “Another Mike Peters Moment!” are anything but expressions of love and adoration for one of cartooning’s true giants and one of it’s most lovable characters. Having Mike on these trips is a complete joy, as demonstrated by the multiple stories and hilarious events that seem to follow him about like moths to a flame. These sidebars are only a taste of some of the wacky stuff he said and did that had us in stitches for the entire trip.
Mike was not in my group during the DC tours, so these stories are sadly second hand, but nobody could make this stuff up.
One of the stops Mike’s group made was into a maternity ward are of the hospital. There they encountered a woman who was in her last stages of pregnancy, huge and ready to pop at any moment. While talking with her she mentioned she was having high blood pressure problems and needed to take it easy.
Mike insisted he knew a method to lower your blood pressure by deep breathing 20 times, and in his typically high energy way insisted she try it on the spot.
“That’s okay, thanks anyway” She says.
“NO NO NO! You HAVE to do this with me. I’m SERIOUS! This will HELP!!!” Do it with me RIGHT NOW!!” Mike exclaimed.
“I’d rather not.”
“NO NO NO. I’m SERIOUS!! I INSIST!!!” Mike continued to expostulate.
“It’s okay. I’m good.” The woman said , obviously getting exasperated.
“NO NO!! I’m SERIOUS!! This will be WONDERFUL!!” Mike gets down on his knees and takes her hands, and starts deep breathing. “BREATHE! BREATHE!!”.
Meanwhile the other artists can see this woman getting flustered and figured Mike probably raised her blood pressure 20 points with his “cure”.
Fortunately there was no need for a crash cart, nor did she give birth right there and then.
Later Mike drew for a woman on the same ward who had just given birth.
“That’s WONDERFUL!” Mike exclaims. “What’s your baby’s name?!”
“GUS! That’s FABULOUS! What a WONDERFUL NAME!”
In the very next room, close enough to be overheard in the last room, Mike has the same exchange with a different lady who had just given birth.
“That’s WONDERFUL!” Mike exclaims. “What’s your baby’s name?!”
“Christian! That’s FABULOUS! What a WONDERFUL NAME! It’s a lot better than “Gus”!” he exclaimed pointing stealthily to the other room.
We thought the lady was going to have to have her C-section stitches replaced from laughing so hard.
I drew caricatures of the soldiers I met with, and some of their families as well as the staff of the hospitals. Getting tired of drawing just heads and shoulders all the time, I made a couple of attempts at doing some gags. At one point we met a young soldier named “Jason” who had been shot multiple times by an insurgent/rebel who was acting as a policeman aiding them on a patrol. The guy suddenly opened fire on everyone in the middle of a patrol, and Jason caught several bullets. He was going to be okay, and in fact was nearing the end of his recovery. I couldn’t tell if he liked my caricature of him or not:
Over the top?
Some of the soldiers get emotional and seeing how much of themselves they have given, both body and mind, can really make your heart ache. One soldier who had lost his leg to an I.E.D. in Afghanistan was with his wife and two brand new twin babies and could only say over and over again in a voice thick with emotion how lucky he felt to be back live and be able to see them grow up. It’s hard to grasp how much it’s cost these young men and women to serve their country, and it’s inspirational to hear them say they did what they did because they loved their jobs and their country.
The day we visited these facilities they were running a training drill and the therapy/rehab rooms at Walter Reed were closed, so we did not get to visit with those soldiers who are fighting to recover as much mobility and functionality as they can via sweat and tears in the gym. In my opinion, that was the most inspirational thing I saw on last year’s trip… a huge room full of kids with missing limbs and other trauma, gritting their teeth and scratching and clawing thorough unbelievable pain to regain as much of what they had lost as possible. That is courage. How easy would it be to crawl into a pity bag and curse the world for the ills they had suffered? Far easier than the excruciating road of rehabbing some terrible injuries. There is no quit in these kids.
Garry and Chip sign the banner
We wrapped up our day at Walter Reed signing an NCS banner that was started at the Reuben Awards this year in Los Angeles and presented to the hospital there on behalf of the NCS. A fitting end for the day.
NCS Banner presented to Walter Reed
We departed directly to Dulles International Airport to catch our overnight flight to Frankfurt. The previous trip we took to Landstuhl was privately funded and, although the USO was involved in our activities and organization, we were really on our own for a lot of the trip. That’s not the case when the USO sponsors the entire trip. This time we had handlers (namely USO tour managers Tracy Thede and Jeremy Wilcox, as well as USO photographer Jackie Zettles), who had the nigh-impossible task of keeping us on time and on task… which is not easy when Mike Peters keeps wandering off hugging everybody. Then they had to deal with the divas in the group like Pastis, who insisted all the brown M&M’s be removed from his room and that “Rat” and “Pig” be added to the list of official guests on all itineraries and reservations (that’s a joke… Stephan loves brown M&Ms). The USO folks were outstanding… maybe they liked the fact that we were really far from divas and were easy to get along with. Regardless they kept things running relatively smoothly.
We took an afternoon flight into Frankfurt, and thanks to the time change landed early in the morning. It’s tough to get sleep on a plane so everybody was tired and punchy on the 1 1/2 hour bus ride done to Landstuhl. A bus full of tired and punchy cartoonists in close quarters for 90 minutes can be very dangerous… fortunately no one was hurt.
Tracy lays down the law on the bus to Landstuhl
Friday, October 16th:
Thursday quietly became Friday while we were in the air. The difficult part was that we had literally no time to decompress. We dropped our bags off at the inn we were staying at on the Ramstein Air Force Base, had lunch at the world’s largest PX/BX and proceeded straight to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to start drawing for the injured soldiers and staff there. We split into two groups and visited different parts of the hospital, including the DWMMC (Deployed Warrior Medical Management Center) which coordinates patient movement and medical care for service members and civilians who become wounded or ill while serving in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
My group, which consisted of myself, Rick, Chip, Garry and Jeff B. drew a number of soldiers waiting in the DWMCC lobby. We also toured several wards where soldiers in their rooms were offered the chance to have us come in and visit.
Caricature for a wounded warrior- Photo by Ben Bloker/Stars and Stripes
Caricature of some staff at LRMC- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
We did not see any really severely injured soldiers this time around. In fact many of the people we saw were there for non-combat related injuries like gallstones or routine accidents, although we did see a few who had more serious issues including enemy inflicted injuries. These kids are fresh from the front lines, as Landstuhl is the first stop back for anyone injured or sick “down range”. That is very different than the wounded warriors back home with their families in a stateside hospital like Bathesda or Walter Reed. The kids are hurt AND homesick.
One soldier we visited was Spc. Ben Brashier, a National Guardsman from Missisippi who had sustained burns on his hands and leg in an accident while serving in Iraq. Ben was in great spirits and joked with us as we sketched for him.
Chip, Garry and Rick draw for Ben- Photo by Ben Bloker/Stars and Stripes
Chip, Jeff, Garry, Rick and me with Spc. Brasher- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
Another soldier we saw was not American but Polish, and was being treated for a blood clot and recently discovered heart problems. His name was Miroslaq Augustyn (but he went by “Mike”) and was a Polish Army Warrant Officer. He was very emotional when he explained that the treatment of his blood clot led to the discovery of his heart condition which would probably have otherwise gone unnoticed until too late. He was a lot of fun, and when I handed him his caricature he laughed so hard he exclaimed “Are you guys trying to kill me?”. It’s great when we can bring that kind of laughter to some of these folks… and so far I have still never killed anyone with one of my caricature although I have made a few people sick.
Me drawing Miroslaq- Photo by Ben Bloker/Stars and Stripes
Still drawing Miroslaq- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
Are you trying to kill me?- Photo by Ben Bloker/Stars and Stripes
After the LRMC visits, we went over to the brand new USO Wounded Warrior Center, where we again set up and drew for those visiting. We had a special treat there as Mary Jean Eisenhower, grand daughter of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, stopped by and chatted with us. Ms. Eisenhower is president and CEO or People to People International, an organization started by her famous grandfather that strives to enhance international understanding and friendship through cultural and humanitarian activities. She works with the USO via several PTPI programs. One wall of the WWC was decorated by framed cartoons from the last NCS/USO trip to the area last March.
The Band with Ms. Eisenhower- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
That evening a tired and jet lagged group of cartoonists went back to our accommodations on Ramstein AFB. All of us stayed in one building except Pastis, who has a luxury suite with Jacuzzi in another part of the base (at least that’s what HE told us… I suspect it was the same austere but comfortable quarters we had). A few of us then walked over to the Officer’s Club to have our last taste of beer before heading out to the entirely alcohol-free country of Kuwait and that of U.S. bases in Iraq.
Jeff K., Jeff B., Rick, Garry, Mike P. and me are sipping beers at the officer’s club discussing how best to handle what might be overwhelming numbers of people to draw for when we go down range. One suggestion was to get some heavy blank index cards to use as a smaller, standardized format to draw on that might facilitate things better due to the size restrictions.
Suddenly Mike stands up and walks over to the bar, which I am facing from my side of the table. He looks like he’s ordering a drink. Without warning, he and one of the bartenders literally dash out the door and into the night. No explanation. No “be right back, guys”. Solid gone.
About 45 minutes later we go looking for him. He is nowhere to be found in the area. His jacket and hat are still at our table. The thing with Mike is that at any moment he can suddenly go off on some tangent and disappear, and heaven only knows where he’s gone or what he’s dong… although it’s a safe bet it involves a lot of hugging.
Finally as we are getting ready to leave he and the bartender show back up. Mike is all smiles as he hands over about 40 huge packs of index cards for us to use to draw on. Only Mike would go up to a total stranger and get him to abandon his job to drive him to the nearest 24 hour office supply store and haul back an armfull of index cards.
We all did a drawing for the bartender. Mike also hugged him.
Saturday, October 17th:
Morning came early on Saturday as we checked out and headed to a quick breakfast at the Woodlawn Golf Course clubhouse and then headed to the military air terminal at Ramstein. Here we had quite a crowd of soldiers, wives, kids and family members to visit with and draw for thanks to some effective advertising of our appearance there. We drew for a while down in the terminal itself and then moved up to the USO Center in the loft area to do more drawing and talking with visitors.
Cartoonists at Ramstein Air Terminal
Chip, Stephan and Jeff K. drawing away
The irrepressible Mike Peters and Garry Trudeau
Some of the people we drew were stationed in the area, and some were outbound to various places. There was a large group of soldiers who were headed into Afghanistan to serve a tour. They had distant and hollow eyed looks on their faces and few of them came over to get drawn. We were too occupied with the lines of families and kids to be able to approach them, which is a shame as they looked like they needed it.
Me, Bruce Higdon and Mike Ramirez- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
Major Burleson with his Chip Bok original!- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
Jeff Keane and fans- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
Chip and a young fan- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
Garry draws!- Photo by Jackie Zettles/USO
Up at the USO Center there was some USO brass on hand: Sloan Gibson, President and CEO of the USO, Walter Murren, Vice President of Operations, Europe and Mike Lewis, Directory of USO- Germany. These guys were instrumental in getting this trip to become a reality. In chatting with them they again reiterated that, of all the “celebrity” entertainment tours they handle the cartoonists groups are the most popular with service people and their families. Of course we are not celebrities in the same sense as actors, singers and athletes are… but our appeal has to do more with both how the features we have created or worked on are part of many of these people’s childhood and current lives, and that we spend more one-on-one time with them and create something that takes some effort on our part, small as it may be, that is much more than just a photo op and an autograph. It sounds to me like the USO will be sponsoring more cartoonists trips in the future.
After our drawing session at the terminal we boarded the bus for the drive back to Frankfurt and the flight to Kuwait City. On the bus we were instructed by Tracy to NOT mention to anybody at the Frankfurt airport that we were traveling to Iraq from Kuwait. Since we would be taking military transport into Iraq, we were not going to be passing through any customs at the Iraqi border and our passport would not be stamped. If we told them we’d be going to Iraq, we would be subject to a whole different set of formalities in Frankfurt and would miss our flight. Everybody seemed confident they could manage not to spill the beans… except for Mike Peters.
The whole time on the bus Mike fretted about not saying “Iraq” while at the Frankfurt airport. We teased him about it, and he played along.
At the airport we checked in and checked our bags for the flight to Kuwait City. Mike was the last person to do this, and the rest of our group stood outside the exit of the check in area waiting for him. Mike is by far the most animated talker I know, using sweeping hand gestures and body language for the most mundane of conversations. we cannot hear him from the distance we are at but he is obviously going into something with the stern German lady at the counter. Finally she hands him his boarding pass and he turns to us and mouths “I DIDN”T SAY IT!!! I DIDN”T SAY IT!!!” while waving his arms frantically. While we are all laughing the counter woman, who is a short, stocky, severe looking woman, steps over the luggage opening and proceeds to frisk Mike. He put her up to it, of course, but the look on his face was priceless.
She got a hug from him for that.
Coming Thursday: Kuwait