By Michael Cavna
Sunday, November 21, 2010; E05
The soberness of war emerged from the darkness before Mike Luckovich and his colleagues even took off for Afghanistan. It was the front end of their USO tour this month, and the six visiting cartoonists had spent the better part of a day at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, shuttling and waiting and shuttling and waiting, doing as they were directed and not knowing whether midnight would find them at the tarmac or the bar or finally airborne toward Kandahar.
"At first there was an electrical problem with our plane," Luckovich says of the C-17 they'd boarded in the morning before being bumped. "Eventually we got the all-clear and got back to the plane, but then it turned out that crew was done for the evening. . . . Then later, another crew came out and around midnight we headed back to the plane" - right after stopping at the bar for some quick liquid camaraderie.
"It was dark and not much was going on near the runway," Luckovich recounts to Comic Riffs. "The air base was quiet. Then suddenly I saw a little guy on a motorized vehicle driving alongside our bus. And on the vehicle was a single American coffin with an American flag.
"The laughter kind of stopped right there."
As Luckovich would soon experience, cartoonists bring even more than humor to troops serving overseas. Laughter may be their craft, but cartoonists - like other USO tourists traveling to battle zones - also come to embody an opportunity for connection. And compassion. As a nation's brave men and women continue to risk life and limb in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the cartoonists serve as some tangible proof that America hasn't entirely forgotten about its warriors.
"It's very rare that they ask for political caricatures," says Luckovich, the Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We didn't get into talking about politics. I talked to a USO volunteer who said some troops told her they felt like they were abandoned - that they weren't on the radar" of most Americans.
"I think we felt like it was our job to listen to them and find out about them and talk about how much time they have left" in Afghanistan.
Luckovich had visited troops at such sites as Walter Reed, but this was his first time on an overseas USO tour, which included several forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Flying by Chinook and Black Hawk, the group visited Spin Buldak near the Pakistan border and Tarin Kowt.
Traveling with him were five cartoonists who last year traveled to Iraq for a similar tour: "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau, "Pearls Before Swine" creator Stephan Pastis, "Baby Blues" artist Rick Kirkman, MAD magazine caricaturist Tom Richmond and "Family Circus" cartoonist and National Cartoonists Society President Jeff Keane.
"I've never met people who are so appreciative," Pastis tells Comic Riffs of this month's tour. "While I'm drawing, I'm talking to them and find out the most amazing things -- it's crazy how intense the experience is for the troops, some of whom are on their third or fourth tour. Sometimes they start to cry, it's so emotional."
Pastis particularly remembers one serviceman who began talking movingly about a "Pearls Before Swine" strip in which a crocodile character "wonders whether he'd wasted his life and a kid reassures him he hasn't," the cartoonist says. "It was a rare sentimental strip for me, and it meant something to him. ... I e-mailed it to him [last weekend] the day after I got home."
Keane was also moved by his conversations with the troops. "Their attitudes are incredibly great and positive," says the cartoonist, whose father -- "Family Circus" creator Bil Keane -- used to visit the troops of earlier generations. "Frankly, I never really talked to the guys about the war. I ask them questions like: 'Are you able to talk to your family? Do you have kids? Is it a good thing or a [difficult] thing to see your kids on Skype?'
"It's more personal. ... They often want to talk about family and seem to want to talk about anything but the war."
As the USO group traveled from Germany to Afghanistan, Pastis says he witnessed the poignancy of seeing a war's toll from different locations.
"When we were in Germany and went to hospitals, there was a strange coincidence," Pastis says. "I saw one very young solidier, about 19, who had been shot through both lungs. He received a treatment that was pretty cutting-edge that routed the blood out of his body and oxygenated it and routed it back through.
"Then in Afghanistan," the cartoonist continues, "I was talking to a medic in Kandahar ... and it turns out she had treated him [right after he has wounded]. So I actually saw the war in its various phases."
Pastis echoes the sentiment that many troops overseas might feel forgotten. Traveling to Afghanistan, he says, "puts you at ground-zero of the chasm. There are two halves of American life: Those who are personally connected to this war . . . and those who have almost no knowledge of the war. . . . It's incumbent upon me to help tell their story."
Pastis, Luckovich and Keane all say they're ready to go on another USO tour next year, if and when it's arranged with the National Cartoonists Society.
"It's one of those things where you really make a difference," Pastis says. "I know it sounds cliched, and I know the diminished role that comic strips play now [in popular culture], but the troops don't give a damn. They love it that you're there and you really make them laugh and you're trying to help give them five minutes of their day when they might forget about everything else."