NCS Cartoonists USO Trip- Iraq
November 1st, 2009
Late on the evening of Oct. 19th our band of ten landed at COB Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq. Formerly it was FOB Speicher (forward operating base) but because of it’s size was reassigned as a COB (contingency operating base). It was also formerly Al Sahra Airfield under Saddam. Tikrit, of course, is famous for being the hometown of Saddam Hussein. Getting off the plane it was the first of many surreal moments… hard to believe a bunch of middle aged cartoonists were standing on the sands of Tikrit, Iraq. Stephan Pastis and I turned to each other frequently during the next few days to say something like “Dude. We are in Iraq.” We are total dorks.
Stephan and I after landing in Tikrit
We were bussed a short way to our quarters, where we discovered we had drawn a blackjack. We had been told our sleeping quarters in Iraq were subject to availability and could be tents, container housing, etc. Instead we got incredibly lucky and stayed at a facility on Speicher called “Freedom Rests”. This is like the Club Med of Iraq, only instead of a sandy beach it had a sandy…uh… sand. Freedom Rests is a place were deployed soldiers can get a 3 day pass as a reward for various accomplishments to get away from the stress of their missions and relax. It’s a giant warehouse-like building with multiple entertainment centers, games, computers, a gym, a pool, comfortable barracks and good bathrooms and showers. There is a 24 hour kitchen with full menu. Only a handful of soldiers were there while we stayed for two nights, but it can house up to 100.
We bunked up two to a room. My roommate? Garry Trudeau, the only member of the group I didn’t really know. Garry is of course a major legend in the cartooning business, “Doonesbury” being one of the most critically acclaimed strips in history. You know how sometimes you meet a legend like that and they end up being egotistical jerks, leaving you disappointed and feeling let down? Not a problem with Garry, who was every bit as likable and easy to get along with as any of the rest of us (except Pastis, of course). He came well prepared for the trip, having made his own Doonebury challenge coin that he gave out to the service men and women he met, as well as a Doonebury service patch. His B.D. character, of course, is a soldier who lost his legs in the war and so Garry and his strip are endeared by the military.
Originally we were supposed to have dinner at COB Speicher proper and meet/draw for soldiers there, but due to the rescheduled flight we didn’t get in to the base until near midnight. So it was off to the bunk.
Tuesday, October 20th
An early morning lobby call had us prepared for a long day of travel and drawing. We again were to split into two groups, each visiting two FOBs each in northern Iraq. I was in Alpha group including Jeff Keane, Garry, Stephan, Chip Bok and myself.
Our transportation: Blackhawk helicopters.
Our transportation awaits…
This was something we were all excited about. Flying over the deserts of Iraq in a Blackhawk is something straight out of the movies. Loading up (in full gear) and taking off was extremely cool… for about an hour. After that the charm wore off. Blackhawks are LOUD, windy and cramped. The rear of the chopper has two four seat rows facing one another, and when you are strapped in with seven other people with vests, helmets and gear you cannot move. You have earplugs in which barely muffles the roar. Conversation is essentially impossible. Still, the wonder of it held for the first hour plus long flight to our initital stop. My camera was able to take short bursts of video, so here is a (very) short film of our first Blackhawk flight. The panning horizon clip in the middle is a later time in Baghdad atop one of Saddam’s war ravaged palaces.
Blackhawks have to travel in pairs, so each of our groups boarded a separate chopper and we traveled together to our destinations, and in some cases an empty Blackhawk went on to the next FOB with the loaded one. There were also other passengers that jumped on with us throughout the day.
Stephan and USO Tour guide Jeremy strapped in…
Me and Jeff Keane
Over the Iraqi desert
If you were lucky you were able to avoid the “hurricane seat”, which was the forward facing seat on the far right in the back of the chopper. It’s so called because the downdraft of the rotors through the open side of the aircraft turns this seat into a howling tornado of wind and noise. A person seated there cannot open their eyes and look out the window, can’t open their mouths or their cheeks will blow out as air fills their mouth… they sit there holding on for dear life. The skin of their face ripples like in one of those centrifuge flight simulators. You also have to plug your nose as your nasal cavities fill with forced air. Not pleasant. Fortunately I never had to sit in the “hurricane seat”. Being significantly bigger and stronger than the rest of the cartoonists, I made Pastis or Ramirez sit there. I did, however sit in the seat immediately to the left of it, which I call the “Tropical Storm” seat… not quite a hurricane but still unpleasant. Also in future I will not bring a portfolio case with me to hold my drawing stuff. Portfolio cases make great sails at 1500 feet and 125 knots of screaming wind.
The forward area of the ‘copter
Lookin’ out for bad guys
It was quite noticeable that these are not pleasure cruises. We had gunners with 50mm machine guns on each side, and they we not there for show. They were constantly scanning the ground, and when we passed over rocky terrain they were especially vigilante. At one point during the trip they suddenly opened fire. All of our heads snapped up and we stared at each other all thinking “Did I just hear that? Are you ^%$^ kidding me? Did we just shoot at somebody??”. If anybody was jetlagged that snapped them out of it. Upon landing we found out that the Blackhawks sometimes calibrate their weapons by firing a round or two that include a tracer bullet at designated bunkers, which is what they did. Pastis discretely excused himself upon landing to use the restroom and I have a feeling a soiled pair of his underwear now resides in the sands of northern Iraq.
Alpha teams first stop was FOB Q-west. A former Iraqi airstrip, this base provides logistical support and escorts convoys from Turkey and other northern places into Iraq, among other responsibilities. We received a short tour, met with camp command and got a chance to see some extremely cool military equipment like armored Humvees and M-RAPs. We also met with the camp’s Quick Reaction Force (QRF), which is an emergency response team that deploys at a moments notice to aid distressed convoys and transports. One thing I noticed is that everything on these FOBs are designed for functionality, not aesthetics. The desks and workstations of even the camp commander are humble things made of unfinished plywood. Buildings are t-walls with tent roofs. No time is wasted on making things look nice. They do the job, and that’s ll they have to do.
An armored humvee
We met with soldiers for two hours in the camp DFAC. The air conditioning was out, so the interior of this mess hall was incredibly hot. I we dripping with sweat by the end of the session. You know it’s hot inside a building when it’s a cool relief to walk outside into the northern Iraqi desert sun. That didn’t stop us in the slightest, of course. We didn’t come over 6,000 to let a little discomfort slow us down. In fact we were so busy drawing I was unable to get any pictures of us in action. The USO has yet to release many of the later pictures they took, so I’m afraid there are not many images to share yet.
Me with one of the soldiers I met and his caricature
It is worthwhile saying that despite the fact all the soldiers I drew were armed with automatic weapons I didn’t pull any punches with the caricatures. After all I spent two summers drawing caricatures in downtown Atlanta so I was used to my subjects carrying guns.
After our drawing session we went to the airstrip to await the arrival of our Blackhawks to go on to the next stop. While there we got to play with an (UNLOADED) weapon while given a briefing on it’s workings and maintenance.
He knows what he’s doing…
He does not.
Arabic for “Mountain Dew”…
Our next stop was FOB Marez near Mosul. We met soldiers and drew at the DFAC there, which was the site of the single deadliest attack on American soldiers in Iraq. In 2004 a suicide bomber disguised as an Iraqi security guard killed 22 people including 14 soldiers. A very sobering thought.
This is a video I posted earlier by Spc. Angela Widener on our visit to FOB Marez:
The drawing session was it’s usual fun time. I even had some pretty creative requests. One solder asked me to draw him bear hugging George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, with Dubya saying “I’ve got the beer” and OBL saying “I’ve got the virgins”. That was a fun one. In fact I got several interesting requests throughout the week, and while doing them compromised how much time I had to draw for others I was unable to refuse to draw anything. Whatever these guys and gals wanted, their wish was my command. Caricatures were pretty popular with the soldiers, which was good because I don’t have a “character” to draw like most of the rest of the group… unless you count Alfred E. Neuman which I occasionally did whenever someone asked.
The nighttime Blackhawk ride back to COB Speicher was extremely long and uncomfortable. Here my nearly superhuman power of being able to power nap at will served me well, as it did all week. Whenever we were traveling to and from our stops, be it in SUVs, busses, helicopters or C-17/C-130’s I could nod my head onto my chest and sleep. Let me tell you, if you can sleep on a Blackhawk helicopter you can sleep anywhere. When I closed my eyes after takeoff the “hurricane seat” was empty on our Blackhawk. The next thing I knew I opened my eyes and Michael Ramirez was sitting there. “Wow!” I thought. “That seat really is a hurricane. It blew Mike right into the chopper from God knows where!!” Turns out we’d landed at FOB Sykes and picked him and the rest of Bravo group up and I slept through it. Pastis might have soiled himself again for all I know.
Wednesday, October 21st-
Another early morning lobby call, and this time we were packed up to leave Speicher for Baghdad. Our transport this time was a C-130 Globemaster, the prop engine version of the C-17. This plane was not as loud as the Blackhawks but pretty close. It was a short flight from Tikrit to Camp Victory in Baghdad.
Chip Bok and Bruce Higdon on the C-130
Ready for another wild flight
Closing the hatch
Camp Victory is the main part of the Victory Base Complex (VBC), a very large base that serves as the headquarters of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq. Other camps there include Camp Liberty, Camp Striker and Camp Slayer. The place is gigantic, encompassing miles and miles of land around Baghdad International Airport. It includes Saddam’s Al-Faw palace (also known as the Water Palace) which is part of a resort-like complex of villas and smaller palaces surrounding Al-Faw on a man-made lake. This complex was only lightly damaged int he war and now serves as the main headquarters and Joint Operations Center of collation forces in Iraq.
Al-Faw Palace in Camp Liberty
We were staying at a place called the Joint Visitors Bureau (JVB) Hotel, which is actually smaller palace rumor has it Saddam built for his daughter’s wedding until he killed the bridegrooms which put a general damper of the festivities.
Garry and Jeremy outside the JVB
Resting in the lobby
The JVB at night- Photo: Rick Kirkman
This is a luxurious place that visiting VIP’s, dignitaries and guests sometimes stay at if they are lucky. I didn’t find out until later but the reason we were staying there is yet another:
Mike has a feature on his website called “Open Mike”, where he draws a captionless cartoon and invites participants to write a caption to go along with the image. Apparently a certain Colonel Kidder is a big fan, and has entered frequently but never won. I was told he pulled some strings and got us accommodations there, which after meeting him I have no trouble believing but I was told this by a several cartoonists and that means it might be entirely made up. Our lives are boring by nature so we live vicariously through total fantasy. I’m going to give all the credit to Mike and Col. Kidder though.
After settling in we were off to the first of three drawing sessions. The first was at the “Oasis” DFAC at Camp Liberty. They say that the way to a soldier’s heart is though his stomach, and the Army takes that seriously. The biggest, most comfortable and best supplied structures in all these camps is the mess hall. All ten of us set up in an ancillary room off the DFAC main dining hall and did our thing.
One of the soldiers from Camp Liberty
Rick, Stephan and Mike sign a banner at Oasis DFAC
The next session was the main event of the week. We were set up in the main foyer of the Al-Faw palace, and the crowd was huge. According to the USO we drew 240 soldiers and personnel there beneath a giant U.S. flag. e drew a real variety of people this time, including a lot of special forces and intelligence folks. In fact, a lot of them were unable to tell us what it was they specifically did. I did a special request to be given as a birthday present to a man who was one of the original Rangers and led special forces on missions like hostage rescues. This guy is a genuine U.S. hero and it was a pleasure to draw a picture of him.
The Band at Al-Faw
This soldier was tall AND armed…
Mike Peters draw’s for a fan
Another drawing from the palace
Afterward we got a short tour of the palace. One of the funny things about Saddam’s palaces is as opulent and luxurious as they look they are actually badly built dumps. He demanded they be complete so quickly the contractors were only concerned with the immediate look of the place, and underneath the marble there is nothing but gravel and sand that quickly deteriorated. The places are falling apart. What look like gold is spray-painted metal, crystal is nothing but cheap plastic and stone/marble edging and decor is plaster.
The Al-Faw palace entrance
The Flag at Al-Faw- Photo: Rick Kirkman
The Palace’s main foyer
Saddam’s throne… a gift from Yasser Arafat.
Obviously Saddam needed to lay off the jheri-curl.
The Death Elevator
This door we were told is the “death elevator” that has numerous bloodstains on it from people trying to get away knowing the elevator led to an execution chamber. A wide wall acts as a catwalk to survey Baghdad and the surrounding camp.
Here’s where we drew…
The Band on Saddam’s throne- Photo: Rick Kirkman
The JVB as seen from the palace wall
Our final drawing stop saw us split into two groups again. My group visited a DFAC in East Liberty, where we drew until about 9:00 pm.
It’s late at night in the JVB palace where we are spending the night. Most of us are in one large room that has multiple bunks. Something is wrong with the air conditioning, and it is freezing in our room. Mike decided to knock on the door of the next room and ask them if their air conditioning is okay. The door is answered by Major General Tony Cucolo, who’s command group was there to take over operations of all northern Iraq forces. Only Mike Peters can knock on a door at midnight akin about air conditioning and get a General to answer it. Bothering a two star general that late might have boded ill for most people, but not Mike. General Cucolo amiably chatted with us, got drawings by most of us and thanked us for our efforts for the troops.
Oh, and he got our air conditioning fixed in a hurry.
Monday I will wrap up the story of our trip.