Zen & the art of USO cartoonist tours—Part 1

By Jeremy Meltingtallow

I recently read an account of an amazingly talented artist, Victor Juhasz, about his trip to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with a medevac unit for two weeks. The stories are sometimes harrowing, the drawings raw and intimate. You should see them. They’re incredible.

It started me thinking about my own experiences on trips visiting wounded troops in hospitals and drawing for deployed troops in Iraq and Afghanistan on USO tours.

Our cartoonists’ experience was much different from Mr. Juhasz’s. Where he returned with dozens of drawings he could display in galleries or in magazines and online, we came back with very little artistic evidence of our trips. Mostly our evidence was in the form of “challenge” coins we were given by officers and commanders for doing what we did. We have some photos, many of which are touristy shots of us in not-your-typical tourist locations.


Some photos were of the interactions with the people we met, but too few, considering the hundreds we talked with and drew. Rarely, we came back with drawings of people or things we encountered, most likely done in our off time, which was scarce. Even the sketch I did of the soldier below. I drew him—one of only a few soldiers on our C-17 flight into Iraq—because of his unique way of shading his eyes by stuffing his gloves between his glasses and his eyes.

When we landed, I gave him the drawing. I know he has no idea who we were or why we were on the plane. The only reason I have this record of it is because I took a photo of it with my iPod Touch.

What I did come back with—the things I hold onto dearly—are the empty sketchpads.

Whereas Victor Juhasz went to Afghanistan on a mission to report, to create a record of the horrific and the mundane of deployed life, we went to Afghanistan on a completely different mission.

We were a diversion. We were a few minutes of lightheartedness to break up the sometimes long periods of boredom, which is often shattered by instants of terror. We sat and talked to wounded or deployed soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors for maybe ten minutes or so each while we drew a picture for them, or of them. We found commonality with them, learned about their families, their jobs, their lives—amazing what you can find out in that short period of time.

The only record of my conversations with these troops are the scribbles on the sketchpad backs. Mostly, the evidence of our being there walked away in the hands of one of troops, or was kept in a hospital room. With any luck, we also left them—or they left us—smiling. Then it was time for the next person to take a seat in front of one of us. Most of us scribbled notes while we talked, mine on the cardboard backs of my sketchpads. When I’d learned enough about the person to get a feel for what kind of drawing would suit him or her, I’d start drawing. Most often, that was the shortest part of the encounter. The conversation was the bigger part.

Like the soldier who had lost both legs and now wanted to embark on an educational and career path in biomechanics to help develop prosthetics.

The soldier, who told me he and his wife married for all the wrong reasons. He shrugged and said, ”We liked the same beer and the same amount of beer.”

The Marine from North Carolina who was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. He’d lucked out the first time in Iraq where only two of a group of fifteen bombs had gone off. All they could say about the bombmaker was “Thanks for being a dumbass.”

The 21-year old soldier from Chicago who had been hit by an IED. When we asked if he was going to stay in the army, replied, “Blow me up once, that’s it!”

The Romanian soldier from the International Security Assistance Force, who was nicknamed “10-second Gilbert” for his uncanny ability, when he went out on point, to find explosives remarkably quickly—and unintentionally. He’d been blown up seventeen times. Yes, you read that right—17 times.

The medic, who accompanied EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) patrols looking for IEDs in the roads. The patrols had to move slowly, purposefully along dirt roads trying to find bombs, and in the process, become sitting ducks themselves. He told me of trying to save a young Afghan boy and his father, whose car had been blown up by one of those bombs.

Or the special-ops guy who, while in traction, recounted in detail how he got there: Shot in hand-to-hand combat while deep in the mountains of Afghanistan, where he and his very small team had been dropped nearly four months earlier. Four months in which he had gone without a shower.

These notes, and a couple of my private drawings, are my most prized mementos and scant evidence of our tours.  I don’t have photos of those people, their stony gazes as they told of their brushes with death or their welling eyes when they talked about their families back home. The notes serve as my memory, and I revisit them often.

The rest, the hundreds of drawings that are scattered out there among troops and their families…I have almost no record of them.

But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination.


Photos (Click to biggify)—L to R, top to bottom: 1. M*A*S*H-style Milepost sign, Kirkuk, Iraq;  2. Me as our ride, a Black Hawk, awaits, Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan;  3. Our Afghanistan group inside a bunker where we drew on the walls (L to R: Jeff Keane, Stephan Pastis, Garry Trudeau, Rick Kirkman,Tom Richmond, Mike Luckovich);  4. Drawing of soldier with gloves over eyes on C-17 flight to Iraq;  5. Me drawing for soldier at FOB in Afghanistan;  6. Another satisfied customer at a USO center in Afghanistan;  7. Part of inside back cover of sketch pad, Iraq trip, 2009; 8. Cover of same sketch pad.