MAD Art Director Tours Middle East with USO
How I Spent My Autumn Vacation
By Sam Viviano
We came to the nation’s Capitol from across the country: T. Lewis, illustrator of the comic strip Over the Hedge from Washington state; Todd Clark, creator of Lola, from Idaho; firefighter/illustrator Paul Combs from Toledo, Ohio; all-around cartoonist and military veteran Bruce Higdon from Tennesee; John Reade III, editor/publisher of the cartoonists’ journal Stay Tooned from Mississippi; caricaturists Rob Smith, Jr. and Debbie Schafer from Florida and Philadelphia, respectively; Beetle Bailey’s Bill Janocha from Connecticut; carticaturist/illustrator Ed Steckley from Queens; and myself, MAD illustrator and Art Director, from Manhattan. The purpose: a USO trip overseas, to entertain the troops in the only way the ten of us knew how: by drawing funny pictures.
What we had in common was that we were all members of the National Cartoonists Society, a professional organization best-known as a haven for syndicated strip cartoonists, but with a much broader membership than that implies: four MAD artists — Mort Drucker, Sergio Aragonés, Jack Davis, and Al Jaffee — have won the Society’s prestigious Reuben award (designed by and named after the legendary Rube Goldberg) for Best Cartoonist of the Year. In 2008, thanks to the efforts of NCS member Jeff Bacon, creator of comic strips for The Navy Times and The Marine Corps Times, the Society began a series of USO tours abroad, reviving a long-standing NCS-USO tradition. Ours was the latest in a series of trips to such places as Germany, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan by such cartoonists as Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, The Family Circus’s Jeff Keane, Mother Goose and Grimm’s Mike Peters, and Stephen Pastis of Pearls Before Swine, not to mention MAD’s own Tom Richmond.
Tom had been on several of these trips and returned with awe-inspiring reports to the membership at the Society’s annual meetings, which made me wonder what I would do if I were given the chance to go on a USO tour. That opportunity came this past spring, when Tom — now President of the NCS — asked me if I would like to be part of the next contingent of cartoonists to be sent abroad to serve our country. How could I turn down my President? I jumped at the chance.
The ten members of our newly-formed unit met our able USO chaperons, Jeremy Wilcox and Brooke Northrup, along with photographer Mike Clifton, at Dulles airport the evening of Monday, October 17, and we boarded the redeye flight for Frankfort, Germany. Once there, we didn’t have much time to relax. A ninety-minute bus ride took us to the Ramstein Air Base, where we dropped off our luggage, had a little lunch, then headed for the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center — a large military hospital where we broke into two groups and visited patients in their rooms. These were soldiers and airmen who had seen combat and were being patched up before returning to the front or to their bases. As we stood around their beds, chatting with them as we drew cartoons and caricatures, we were all impressed by their upbeat attitudes and positive outlooks. I personally was also struck by how young some of them were, a point driven home as I drew a caricature of an airman waiting to be sent home as she clutched a teddy bear in her arms. Not all of them were that young, though, nor were they all wounded in battle; I also met a chaplain, a veteran of over twenty years, who had torn his Achilles tendon while playing basketball and was itching to return to his company.
Later that day, we ten cartoonists set up our tables at the outdoor recreation center at Ramstein and drew for hours as lines of servicemen and their families waited their turns. It was around this time that most of us realized that, to some extent, the cartooning was secondary — the really important thing that was happening was the chance to sit down for ten or fifteen minutes and chat with one of the men or women who had chosen to volunteer for military service. They were a far more diverse group than I had anticipated. There were young men and women who had clearly joined the armed forces because they had run out of options back home, but there were also fathers and mothers who were not only raising families but also working on their MBAs in preparation for their return to civilian life stateside, and there were grandfathers and even grandmothers, longtime reservists, who had decided to re-up once their own children had settled into their lives. Together, these men and women formed a community much larger than I could have imagined, all serving as a support system for the soldiers and airmen at the front whom we usually hear about in the news. In truth, Ramstein (as well as the other bases we were to visit) was a small city, with each occupant having a role to play in its operation. With that in mind, it should have come as no surprise that the PX, the serviceman’s supply station, was enormous, like the largest WalMart I had ever seen.
The next morning had us doing a combined drawing/early lunch session at the Ramstein DFAC (Dining Facility), before heading back to the Frankfurt airport for another fairly long flight, this time to Kuwait, in the Persian Gulf. The flight took more than six hours, but I won’t pretend it was particularly grueling — the USO treated us no differently than the movie stars and athletes it normally sends abroad to entertain the troops, and had booked us all in business class for each of our flights. It may be true that the people seated at the front end of the plane will not arrive at the destination much sooner than everyone else back in coach, but they get there much more comfortably. To top things off, once in Kuwait we found we were staying, not on an Army or Air Force base, but in a five-star Italian hotel!
This made it a little embarrassing the next morning, when we were given a briefing by the Garrison Commander, who thanked the ten of us for giving up our time and lives to come to Kuwait to help keep up the morale of the troops. He gave each of us a framed official Certificate of Appreciation (as you saw at the top of this post), along with a handsome medallion known as a Challenge Coin (which he cautioned us to keep on our persons in case we should cross paths with him in the future). We were being thanked and pampered and showered with gifts, and we hadn’t even started drawing in Kuwait yet!
As we broke into groups of five and drew pictures at various camps and facilities over the next two days, we began to understand why the Commander had thanked us so profusely — and why everyone else we met at each stop did the same. As Brian, the local USO chaperon, put it, “Imagine the block you live on in your home town; now picture what it would be like if you were unable to leave that block for six months, or for a year. You’d be pretty grateful, too, if someone took the trouble to come visit you.” The truth is that life on base can get pretty monotonous, and the arrival of people from the States who have essentially come simply to say hello is a pretty big deal. And that’s why the chatting turned out to be more significant than the drawing, for us as for the men and women in uniform whom we met — because the important thing was the contact, the human interaction, and the chance to say “thank you.” This worked both ways: each time a soldier or airman said, “Thank you for coming here,” our inevitable response was, “No, we’re here to thank you for being here in the first place
On Saturday morning, we left Kuwait for our next stop. This was originally to be Iraq, but because of the “draw-down” — the reduction of American military forces continuing through to the end of this year — plans had to be changed. Instead, we flew to the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, in what we have been asked to refer to as an Undisclosed Location in Southwest Asia. For the first time since we had left the U.S., we were not lodged in luxury surroundings, but instead had to stay in an Air Force dormitory that vaguely resembled an upscale prison block (but was still nicer than any dormitory I had lived in during my college days). We even had to make our own beds and dispose of our own trash. But by this time, the ten of us had bonded pretty closely and welcomed the opportunity to spend a couple nights in closer quarters.
We continued to draw in two-hour sessions, separated by meal breaks, and always felt cheated when Jeremy or Brooke, our conscientious USO chaperons, would come by and say, “only thirty minutes left.” We were energized by the one-on-one with the troops, and didn’t want it to end. As cartoonists, our interaction with the troops was a little different than that of performers or athletes who come and sign photographs: we interacted with far fewer people, but we got to spend a lot more time with each one we did meet – plus each one of those men and women left with something a little more personal: a caricature (sometimes, if requested, of a wife or son or daughter, drawn from a photograph or cell phone) or a drawing of their favorite cartoon character.
Each of our last two nights in Southwest Asia was brought to a close by a show-and-tell session, which we learned was as important to our military hosts as the drawing sessions were to us. They welcomed the chance to show us their equipment and to demonstrate their training methods. The first evening, we visited the Fire Station, and saw trucks and pumps that seemed to me right out of a science fiction war movie, and even impressed Paul Combs, our resident firefighter from Toledo. Paul had an even more memorable experience the next evening, when we visited the K-9 Center, where some pretty amazing dogs are trained to sniff out bombs and narcotics. Paul got to put on the Decoy Suit, a comically padded outfit that allowed the dogs to attack him as a pretend bad guy without mortally injuring him.
Early Monday morning, October 24, we disposed of our bedding and our trash and left the barracks for the long bus-ride to the airport…and the even longer plane ride home. It was a fourteen-hour flight, but once again we were flying International Business Class, so I am not going to complain (except that I didn’t really care for either of the two movies I watched en route). There was one last task to be accomplished before we left, however. Each of the NCS groups that had preceded us in years past had given itself a nickname, reflecting the military culture it had been a part of for a week or so. For most of the trip, our band of artists had simply been too busy even to discuss the matter much. Although John Reade had put forth about forty-five possible names a week or two before we even left the States, we quickly realized, as Ed Steckley put it, “You don’t choose the name; the name will choose you.” He was right: as we left our Undisclosed Location in Southwest Asia, we knew that our company of ten cartoonists must from then on be known as...The Undisclosed!