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‘Toonists Visit Troops

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

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

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.”

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.”

29, 2009

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