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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 10/24/2009

Playing the Palace: Hours back from Iraq, top cartoonists share tales of a USO tour

By Michael Cavna

I'm sitting in a hotel bar-and-grille that's so close to Virginia's Dulles International Airport, the hotel's walls have flight-time boards that flicker like mood lighting in the lobby. The mood at my table is a bit more subdued. Until, that is, talk turns to two things: golfing in Iraq and "Mother Goose and Grimm" cartoonist Mike Peters.

The seven men I'm surrounded by are all cartoonists. Most of them say they're jet-lagged from their roughly 14-hour flight from Kuwait the night before. But as they recount stories of visiting Saddam Hussein's former palace (which makes for a swell impromptu driving range, it turns out) and of traveling over Iraq by Blackhawk helicopter and of staring into the resolute and upbeat eyes of wounded soldiers in places like Landstuhl medical center, the cartoonists' own faces are energized and at-attention, flush with the still-fresh memories.

And in recounting their adventures from their 10-day USO tour to Germany and the Persian Gulf just hours after returning to U.S. soil, it also turns out that most of these magnificent seven cartoonists can also do one mean Mike Peters impression -- and it is impossible to remain subdued when impersonating the likable, eternally boyish cartoonist who, should he submit to a blood sample, might test positive for naturally occurring Red Bull.

Peters, who is not at the table except in spirit, traveled on the tour with these seven fellow cartoonists. They are: MAD magazine artist Tom Richmond, retired naval captain Jeff Bacon of "Broadside Cartoons" and the Military Times, Stephan Pastis ("Pearls Before Swine"), cartoonist-designer Bruce Higdon, Rick Kirkman ("Baby Blues"), political cartoonist Chip Bok and National Cartoonists Society president Jeff Keane ("Family Circus"). Also on the USO tour were political cartoonist Michael Ramirez and "Doonesbury's" Garry Trudeau.

The whole reason Peters's name comes up is because until they returned, the cartoonists were sworn to secrecy about Iraq being a specific destination on their tour. But in jest, they say, the yammer-happy Peters was pegged as the man most likely to spill the Baghdad beans, however unintentionally. "After checking in, Mike turns back to us and says, 'See, I didn't say it!' " Keane recalls. The men laugh.

After 10 days together, there is genuine warmth among them. After spending most of the tour in "dry" nations, there is also genuine beer among them.

The purpose of the mission -- organized by the USO and the National Cartoonists Society -- was to support and entertain the troops. The cartoonists drew personalized caricatures and character illustrations for many of the servicemen and -women they met overseas and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Upon their return, the cartoonists speak glowingly of the morale and warmth and sense of purpose they witnessed among the troops. Their respect and awe for the men and women they met are palpable. Not even a little jet-lag can dampen the intensity of those feelings, heightened by meaningful hours in forward-operating bases (including Camps Buerhing, Virginia and Marez) and medical centers.

One such memorable moment came in Germany's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Richmond drew a caricature of a Polish soldier, he says, and then handed it to him.

The soldier began laughing harder and harder at the personalized caricature -- at just what the illustration captured -- and then, still convulsed with laughter, looked at the "MAD" artist and joked: "What are you trying to do -- kill me?"

The cartoonists also smile at the fresh memory of hitting golf balls into a body of water near Hussein's former palace. "Well, most of us reached the water," Bacon jokes. Kirkman smiles sheepishly, as he's teased about "laying up" on quite the surreal "water hazard."

But the palace also summons more poignant memories, such as "seeing blood on the wall," Pastis says. "These emptied pools were where people were executed."

All seven cartoonists had been on USO trips before, elsewhere, and they noticed a key difference at the medical centers: On previous visits, most of the troops they met had been wounded in Iraq. This time, Keane says, "All but maybe one [we met] were from Afghanistan."

And then there are those memories that are both chilling and laughable in almost the same moment. The cartoonists were riding in a Blackhawk, relatively at ease, when suddenly the copter's machine guns were fired. The cartoonists tensed up, wondering whether they had come under enemy fire. "It was really quiet after that," Keane says.

Except Bok was still at ease. "He had [miked] headgear on," Pastis says, "so he knew what was going on."

What was going on was: It was simply target practice. Just firing off some rounds.

"Why didn't you TELL us?" the cartoonists ask Bok now, joking but not entirely unserious.

Bok smiles. Sometimes, even a cartoonist needs to keep a good joke to himself.

THE RELATED READ: To see images and video and read more about their USO tour, Comic Riffs highly recommends you check out TOM RICHMOND's "MAD" BLOG Also, on this post, Richmond explains how the efforts of Jeff Bacon and Jeff Keane, among others, helped make this tour possible.

By Michael Cavna  | October 24, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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