by Bill Castanier
Bob Hope, the dean of overseas USO tours to entertain troops, was famous for deadpan jokes. A recent USO trip to Germany by eight cartoonists could have been grist for one of the late comedians patented gags, which may have gone something like this: Hope goes on stage, sees a group of nerdy guys and asks who they are. When they tell him they're cartoonists sent to draw for injured troops, Hope replies, “I thought I asked for a bunch of strippers.”
But even though the seriously injured soldiers they visited are used to seeing the likes of Anna Kournikova and Scarlett Johansson sent in to help boost morale, USO officials say they were just as, if not more, affected by a visit from eight American cartoonists, including Jef Mallett, creator of “Frazz.”
Mallett and the other cartoonists, including two-time Pulitzer winner Michael Ramirez, spent April 6 through 10 visiting Bethesda Hospital, in Maryland, Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington, and medical facilities for the seriously wounded in Germany. While on the tour, they spent time with soldiers and staff and drew cartoons for them.
None of the cartoonists knew much about their mission going in except the basics: one day at Bethesda and Walter Reed, followed by an flight to Germany, to visit and draw for soldiers who had serious injuries, such as the loss of limbs and severe facial injuries; most of the injuries had been inflicted by roadside bombs.
In Germany, the cartoonists spent 13-hour days drawing personalized cartoon art for the soldiers, many of them just days off the front. “Our job was pretty simple: to listen to them, to draw pictures for them and to say thanks,” Mallett said.
For the tour's Michigan contingent, the experience was not only dramatic, but one that can almost be described as life changing. “These men had amazing, heroic stories,” Mallett said. “Here are young men whose lives have been changed forever. I was impressed with their sense of devotion. They are very focused individuals.”
Knowing he'd be visiting the most seriously injured, Mallett said he girded himself for the tour, but when they visited the rehabilitation facility in Bethesda, it was still “staggering.” “There is no other way to say it,” Mallett said. “It was the only time I was really knocked on my heels. The room was packed with people working out, all missing a limb or multiple limbs.”
When the question “What do you want me to draw?” was posed, most soldiers didn't have a specific request. Many were happy someone was just paying them a visit. “It didn't matter to them,” Mallett said.
Walt Murren, USO Europe regional vice president, said the tour was the most well received in terms of impact on troops of any he's seen. “And I am talking movie stars and rock stars,” he said.
“[The cartoonists] were up close and personal, going one-on-one with the wounded,” Murren said. “They were able to create a tremendous relationship with the wounded warriors. When I visit the units, all I hear about is the cartoonists.”
Since the tour was such a success, the USO is already making plans for another cartoonist tour this fall, most likely to Iraq or Afghanistan. “I would like them to come back next week,” Murren said. “I am not thinking about it; I will definitely be going,” said Mallett, in his typical understated way. “I will grow so much in one week, just like I did on this trip. I was so humbled by the experience. You can't grasp the extent of what is going on.”
—April 29, 2009
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