By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
First Sgt. Troy Steward becomes fascinated with Garry Trudeau's pen. It writes so richly, it rolls so well! For this mission, the New York Army National Guardsman feels not as well-armed as the creator of "Doonesbury."
"If you want to know about killing people, I can tell you that," Steward says. "When it comes to signing books . . ."
Trudeau holds his pen aloft and offers a tribute. "This is called the Uni-ball Vision Elite," he says. "And it's mightier than anything you got!"
Everyone at the lunch table in the Department of Veterans Affairs cracks up. Yes, indeed, Steward and the big guy at his elbow, Sgt. Owen Powell, probably do have more recent experience with assault rifles than with pens. But they also happen to know their way around a laptop, and they can make the English language sing almost as sharply and sweetly as one of cartoon warrior B.D.'s thought balloons.
Which is how the paths of all three have crossed behind a big pile of books in the canteen of VA headquarters downtown, where yesterday about 100 employees lined up to get their $14.95 copies signed, discounted from the regular retail price of $16.95. The work is called "The Sandbox," a new collection of blog entries that men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan posted to the milblog of the same name that Trudeau created at the comic strip's Web site.
Steward makes do with his balky marker. On his right wrist, his signing hand, is a band with the name of one of his soldiers killed in action. Powell wears a band in memory of three. Trudeau is the self-effacing celebrity whom many of the book buyers have come to see, but it is the soldiers they thank.
The project began last fall with one of the more bizarre solicitations in publishing history -- an invitation from a cartoon character. Trudeau penned the words, "It was a dark and messed-up night," in a "Doonesbury" Sunday strip, imagining a soldier blogging. In the next panel, B.D.'s cartoon comrade Ray Hightower announced the debut of "our command-wide milblog," where troops could vent and rhapsodize, and folks on the home front could learn what is going on from their point of view.
Steward, 38, who recently returned from Afghanistan, and Powell, 40, who just got back from Iraq, are two of nearly 40 contributors published in the book. In all, nearly 100 have posted about 300 entries to the milblog.
Trudeau had been reading military blogs for years, for inspiration. Some of them were really good, he found, but they were being read by a limited audience. "Man, this is not right that only friends and family get to see this stuff," he remembers thinking. "We came up with the idea that the Global War on Terror needed its own literary magazine."
Despite Trudeau's merciless cartoon satirizing of the Bush administration, the U.S. military has a soft spot for the cartoonist. At least he seems to dig the troops. This morning he was scheduled to sign books with Steward and Powell at the Pentagon. He visited both the VA and the Pentagon last year with new cartoon collections featuring B.D.'s wounding in Iraq and his recovery. He is a discreet regular at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at outpatient gatherings of wounded troops. Royalties from "The Sandbox" will go to support the Fisher House Foundation, the Rockville-based charity that provides lodging for the families of patients receiving medical care at VA facilities.
The Sandbox milblog is called the "GWOT-lit's forward position." As in so many virtual communities, most of the participants have never met. Trudeau, Steward and Powell first laid eyes on each other when they got to Washington Monday night. "We've all been an abstraction to one another," Trudeau says.
But the cartoonist has taken pains to immerse himself in the experiences of this generation of warriors. It was the only way to convey believable cartoon scenes from the front, and to portray B.D.'s trying experience in Iraq and back home. Trudeau interacts easily with soldiers, speaking their language without apparent calculation.
"We originally thought of [calling the blog] 'Hotwash,' " he says to Steward in the taxi ride to the VA.
Steward nods. Hotwash is an expression for the first reports of an action on the battlefield. But "The Sandbox" works, too, Steward says.
"I just got back from the Sandbox," he says, which can refer to either Afghanistan -- "the Stan" -- or Iraq. "There's a big beach in both, and there's no ocean over there."
Steward says he's now training Guard troops bound for the Stan. Trudeau asks if he can get a video copy of Steward's presentation. Steward says, "I've already told you more than what I've told most regular civilians!"
During a break from signing books to eat sandwiches in the VA's canteen, the talk turns to latrine graffiti.
"One article I want to write but I haven't yet is the best Port-a-Potty lines I ever read in Iraq," says Powell. "Chuck Norris is huge. Everywhere you go, in every Port-a-Potty."
Trudeau pulls out his pen and a little notebook and begins jotting.
Powell continues, "My favorite one is, 'Chuck Norris is . . . right behind you!'"
Trudeau turns to his editor and collaborator on the book and the Web site, David Stanford, and says: "I think there's a book there. Chuck Norris graffiti!"
Norris does have a cameo in the book, as the little Chuck Norris action figure on the back cover that Steward took with him and posed with assorted weaponry in Afghanistan. Now his son Jon, about to be deployed, will carry the Norris doll into battle.
Every war has its styles of irony, its pop-cultural reference points, and they are part of the reality portrayed in "The Sandbox" by a lineup of accidental writers.
"I didn't write this to become famous; it was just to capture what I was going through," says Steward. One of his most widely read blog entries was a list of 63 items that every soldier should pack on the way to the Sandbox.
"Baby wipes -- 30 days worth . . . Weapons lube that doesn't attract sand. . . A PSP or some other handheld gaming device . . . Webcam for video calls back home . . . ."
Powell, whose headphone was struck by a sniper's round that exited his helmet but did not wound him, says, "I wanted to write about the visceral experience of being in Iraq. This is what it feels like to drive through Baghdad in a Humvee, this is what it feels like to be mortared or shelled." His blog entries, written under the name of "Sgt. Roy Batty," often refer to recent books and movies. "I always felt life was at its best when it resembled an action movie, or some kind of movie," he says. "It was very interesting to see how real combat compares to the movies or the books. Unfortunately, the movies or the books were more interesting. It's sort of the banality of being shot at."
In one entry, where a stray dog is an unlikely hero, he writes: "This is Iraq in a nutshell. It varies from boredom, to hardship, to hilarity, to violence, back to boredom, into tension, and occasionally it trips across wonderment along the way. Gotta love it."
Trudeau, who has created war cartoons all the way back to Vietnam, and who recently re-read and admires that iconic example of Vietnam literature, "Dispatches" by Michael Herr, says the new war literature is different because of its immediacy: Troops grabbing laptops, filing instant dispatches in their own words. Hotwash.
"It's being published before it gets over-thought," he says.
Time to sign more books. Maria Vi¿a, a VA program analyst, wants three, for her husband, a retired Marine, her older son in the Air Force, and her younger son, a 19-year-old Navy ROTC cadet and "Doonesbury" fan.
Leaving the table with her books, she says, "Coming from a military family, it's important for people to understand and know the stories of people over there. A lot of times people just watch on TV and they don't really care."