One of the unexpected joys in my life has been getting to know a remarkable group of incredibly talented men and women known as cartoonists. A subgroup of the whole bunch is made up of cartoonists who visit the troops at military hospitals and travel further downrange – the colloquialism among military members for war zones.
Just recently a group of five flew with the USO downrange to a place that surprised us all.
They went to Iraq.
Iraq had been closed since 2011. Not any more.
The group consisted of five talented artists: Michael Ramirez, John Read, Chip Bok, Dave Mowder, and Bruce Higdon. The next several paragraphs were written by LTC (ret) Bruce Higdon. It has been cleared by the USO and DOD for release. I have done some editing for brevity.
We headed for Kuwait City to link up with our USO rep for the tour. We successfully cleared immigration, baggage, and linked up with our security detail. From there, it was off to the hotel for some rest.
Lobby call was at 8:00 the next morning. It quickly changed to 2:00 because of a military flight delay. This would become routine for the next two days. We were hotel bound, and had no interaction with troops. Since we had just been to Arifjan, Kuwait Naval Base and Camp Buehring a few weeks ago [on another trip], there was no time to get anything set up. The constant flux of transportation/no transportation made it that much more difficult.
On day three, we had high hopes of getting a flight into Baghdad. We were also able to get a couple hours of drawing for the troops in at the Drop Zone, a recreation facility at Ali-Al Salem Air Force Base, “The Rock.” The session went great. Everyone who came in left with a caricature and a smile.
No sooner than we sat down in the staging room to wait for our flight than the security guys told us to grab our bags and body armor and head to the aircraft. It was a lovely C-17, loaded with pallets of water, heading for Baghdad International Airport. Cartoonists’ Attitude Meter reading suddenly soared.
We spent three days in Baghdad, drawing in the American Embassy Compound gym, dining facility and at the MWR center in BDSC (Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center), the old “Green Zone.” It was amazing to realize the various nations represented both at the embassy and out in the unit dining facilities. The 82nd Airborne Headquarters element was responsible for the area, as well as 10th Mountain Division, from Fort Drum, NY, the 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) from Kansas, and the various support and logistics units from the National Guard and Reserve from various states.
Everywhere we went, the soldiers and airmen crowded in to sit down with us, have their caricatures drawn, and to just chat about all the wonderful things they are doing in that part of the world. As Jeff always says, “Bruce Higdon runs into someone he knows on every tour.” [It is true – he almost always meets someone he knows on every trip.] Not to let my Navy brother down, a young man who had been stationed at Fort Campbell sat down to have me draw his caricature a second time. I had drawn him at the Campbell USO Center during a Warrior Wednesday Pizza Lunch in May.
Our third day in Iraq took us to Irbil, Kurdistan, in northeast Iraq. This town is infamous for being the site where Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds. We arrived and set up in the dining facility, in tent city. The unit was waiting to show us all the new things going up around the unit area, including a new gymnasium that they had just finished building. We drew lots of engineers putting the finishing touches on the facility, as well as the administrative staff for the sustainment unit. Most were reservists from the northeast: Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont.
We flew back for our final event in Iraq – a caricature at the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) facility at the BDSC. It turned into a marathon three and a half-hour session. Soldiers, embassy workers, and some dependents came for a hearty good time at the outdoor facility. Many were fans of Michael and Chip’s editorial cartoons. Others came for Disney and Looney Toons characters. Still most just wanted to sit and talk to cartoonists while we drew. It was tiring, but the fun and comradery more than made up for sore shoulders.
The trip back to Kuwait was on time and uneventful. Our C-130 picked us up, put us down, and we headed back to the hotel to prepare for our last day in Kuwait. Our first visit was to the 3rd Army Headquarters, at Camp Arifjan. Col. Stewart and his Command Sergeant Major welcomed us and briefed us on their mission. We met with his staff and passed out autograph cards, while thanking them for the great service they were giving to our nation and freedom.
Col. Stewart presented the cartoonists with Certificates of Appreciation and the unit challenge coin as a token of their appreciation for our efforts to lift the spirits of the men and women serving at Arifjan. Then, it was off to the North Carolina Guard Unit “Old Hickory,” part of the 30th Armored Brigade’s Combat Team, for a briefing on their mission.
This unit is a small detachment of the larger Brigade, who sends these teams into Iraq, Kosovo, and other sensitive areas, to work with the host nation military to strengthen ties with the U.S. and to build teamwork in area operations. These soldiers were more than a little proud to show us just what they are doing around the world to make big things happen with little resources.
Our final event was held at the Arifjan USO Center. The lines grew as more and more soldiers walked around, showing their caricatures and autograph cards. Some had been there a few weeks ago, during the first tour [another group of cartoonists had visited there a few weeks before]. They returned for another drawing. Some just came back to thank us for coming back a second time. The USO center is always an exciting event for the troops, and we are always glad to be a part of picking up their day.
We were disappointed that we missed three days and the events of those days in Iraq, but it was a good tour. We drew lots of caricatures and toons, met hundreds of soldiers and civilians, and sat along side the men and women in far away, dangerous lands, sacrificing so much so that five cartoonists can travel thousands of miles and draw for them, freely.