About two weeks ago ten cartoonists journeyed with the USO from Washington, D.C. to Kuwait and Iraq to visit and draw for the troops. Ed Steckley, an incredibly (and unfairly, if you ask me) talented cartoonist and caricaturist whose art is featured in such magazines as Mad Magazine, was our scribe for the trip. His detailed and entertaining account can be read here.
Since I can’t improve on what Ed wrote, I will take a different tack and give you some first-hand impressions of what we saw in Talil, Basrah, Baghdad and Balad.
The troops. Despite being “out of the news” for quite awhile, morale was very high. I think they know that the Operation Iraqi Freedom experience is ending well, and who could blame them? No matter how you define victory – militarily, diplomatically, culturally – it has been a victory. And not just for us, but for the Iraqi people as well. They thanked us – can you believe that? They thanked us over and over for being there, but we were the ones who would be going home in a couple of days, not them. We were the ones who owed the gratitude.
Peace is relative. This is still a war zone, and in two of the four places we visited we were greeted with instructions on what to do in case of a mortar attack. The cartoonists, not exactly known for their long attention spans, were focused on those briefs like laser beams. In fact, during the time we were in Iraq, a few mortars were actually fired into U.S. compounds. Most of these, apparently, were random attacks and not coordinated efforts. And no one was hurt, thank God.
Dirt. It is everywhere. They call it sand, but it is dirt. It is very fine and gets everywhere, including in the lungs. I found myself coughing frequently.
Professionalism. This is what impressed me the most. The vast majority of American troops are in their twenties, but I could pick any one of them as my protector and have no doubt that he (or she) would defend me viciously and effectively. The troops carry weapons with them wherever they go, and know how to use them. Not once did I see a slouch, a grumbler, or a slacker. To a person they were fine examples of professional soldiers.
Conditions. From what we saw, living conditions were hardly luxurious, but they were decent. We stayed in Containerized Housing Units (CHUs), which weren’t bad.
Food. Whoever developed the chow system there deserves a medal. Our troops are extremely well fed (can’t speak for those outside the wire), with Dining Facilities (DFACs) featuring everything from steaks to full salad bars to ice cream. There is virtually nothing lacking in variety, and no matter what you want to eat there is plenty of it. If a well-fed Army is a happy Army, our troops are downright giddy.
The USO. What an incredible organization. Headed by its President and CEO Sloan Gibson, the USO is everywhere. In just about every location where there are American troops you will find a USO representative. They treat their “celebrities” like kings, and the troops they serve even better. If you ever want to know where to send your CFC donations, the USO is a great place to start.
In all, I would guess we saw around a thousand troops. The most important of those we met, however, were at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center. Our experiences rubbing shoulders with the troops originated with visits to military hospitals, and always stop at the D.C. military hospitals before heading overseas. We get a chance to talk with the military patients, ask them about their families, discuss their injuries and hear their plans for life. In the process, we try to put a smile on their faces with silly doodles. We have been told that our visits actually help the healing process and if that is true, we’ll keep at it until the world runs out of lead for our pencils.
As always, the impact of our shared experience hits each of us differently, usually a day or two after the traveling is over. The playful jabs, merciless brow-beating and endless laughter fade away, and what is left is an overwhelming sense of gratitude to those thousands of young Americans who are out there in a land far away, serving their country and all it stands for.
And that impression will endure for a long, long time.