Ed Steckley and Mason Mastroianni on their way to Afghanistan
When you go on a USO tour with other cartoonists, you are traveling with cartoon royalty. Not royalty in the real sense, since cartoonists wear ratty clothes, tennis shoes, and forget to shave. But the ones who get selected to go on trips to forward deployed areas are the elite of the art world, and they are very good at what they do.
Jeff Keane, Stephan Pastis, Garry Trudeau, Rick Kirkman, Tom Richmond, Mike Luckovich at the Bunker of Fame in Afghanistan (photo by Charri Leonard Jung)
Over the last nine years, well over a hundred cartoonists have visited the troops in military hospitals or at bases around the world. Maybe thirty or so have been selected for the trips to combat or forward deployed areas (I get to go because I speak the language). Consequently, I have met the top names in the business – the icons of the industry. MAD Magazine artists, editorial cartoonists, caricaturists, comic strip artists, animated cartoon artists, and graphic novelists have all been on these trips.
Chad Carpenter defacing a prosthetic leg
I found out, to my dismay, that to a person they are all good guys (and gals). Humble and self-effacing, they act as if they have no idea how talented they are.
And they are.
Ed Steckley and Rob Harrell at Brooke Army Medical Center
Their cartoons have put thousands of smiles on the faces of our troops, regardless of the setting. Men in hospital beds who just hours before were in combat in Afghanistan have smiled at an exaggerated likeness. Troops who have been away from home for months laugh out loud at drawings that poke fun of them or their buddies.
The connection is palpable and genuine. I wish everyone could see see the pride and professionalism with which the troops represent us in hostile or remote environments. Every cartoonist comes home with the feeling that we should be thanking the troops for the privilege of meeting them, rather than the other way around.
Cartoonists defending Iraq (Tom Stiglich, Dave Coverly, Chad Carpenter, Jeff Bacon, Ed Steckley, Bill Hinds, Ray Alma, Mason Mastroianni, Dave Mowder, Rob Harrell)
There have been good moments, and not so good moments.
My best was in 2009 at Ramstein Air Force Base, when I drew a cartoon for a Soldier who wanted to thank me. He said he had nothing to give in return (he had been flown in with nothing more than the uniform on his back), so he handed me an empty clip from the weapon he had carried in Iraq. “It’s all I have,” he said. I still have that clip.
One of the not so goods was in Landstuhl, Germany, when I found myself sitting between the legendary Jack Davis, one of the original MAD artists, and Michael Ramirez, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist who is now with Investor’s Business Daily. It was like tossing the ball around with Peyton Manning and John Elway. To stretch the metaphor, my spiral wasn’t quite as tight as theirs. I felt like apologizing to everyone who drew the short straw and had to sit in front of me.
Landstuhl (Bill Amend, Bill Hinds, Rob Smith, Jr., Dave Coverly, Jef Mallett, Michael Ramirez, Jack Davis)
But you know what? I would not change a thing, because over the years we have met the best this country has to offer. Whether they are languishing in a hospital room, launching aircraft off an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, or standing guard on the frontier, the men and women who act as the first and final firewall between us and the enemy are nothing short of spectacular. It has been an honor to meet them.
On board USS ENTERPRISE (Tom Richmond, Sam Viviano, Rick Kirkman, Jeff Bacon, Jeff Keane, Dave Coverly)
And besides, how often do you get the chance to toss the ball around with Manning and Elway?