NCS Cartoonists USO Trip- Kuwait

November 1, 2009

From Tom Richmond’s Blog:

Arriving at the airport in Kuwait City, I was prepared for some major culture shock. Traveling in Europe is one thing… usually you can figure out the meaning of things like signs based on the common nature of the Latin based languages, and they all use the same basic alphabetical charters which at least look familiar. Arabic, on the other hand, is totally indecipherable to one with no knowledge of the language. Every time I saw something written in Arabic I had the impulse to turn it upside down.

The Kuwait Airport
The Kuwait Airport

My fears were groundless. Almost every sign is Kuwait, especially road and direction signs, had English translations below. There was no shortage of western influences, either. The airport food court had a Burger King, McDonalds, and money other familiar fast food restaurants… and of course a Starbucks.

If asked at what point during the trip I felt the least safe, I might have to say the trip from our airplane gate to the hotel in Kuwait City. Since we spent most of our time in Iraq on army bases surrounded by thousands of armed soldiers and miles of concrete T-wall barricades, there was little need to be nervous there. The airport in Kuwait, however, was more exposed. We weren’t threatened or anything, but we did receive some intense stares from the crowd standing behind the security barriers who were awaiting other arrivals. The security guys who met us were not kidding around, either. We were hurriedly whacked into a bus and two SUVs with armed security buzzed about us as we drove to the Kuwait City Radisson where we were staying for the next two nights.

In the bus it was explained to us that we were considered “high value targets”, basically because we had no clue what we were doing in that culture. That was cool as I’ve never been a high value anything. My wife, The Lovely Anna, say’s I’m “high maintenance” but that’s different. Our USO guide Tracy told us U.S. personnel spending any time in the middle east get weeks of culture training prior to their arrival. We got 10 minutes. On a bus. Our instructions: Don’t talk to anyone, don’t look at anybody and don’t order pork chops for dinner.

We did learn some interesting things about Kuwait and it’s people. First, if you are a Kuwaiti national you are basically a member of one of five families. Also, Kuwait has the world’s greatest welfare system. If you are a Kuwaiti national, you get a check for about $10,000 US a month just for breathing. That’s every man, woman and child. As such, most Kuwaiti’s do not work. All the jobs in the country are done by third country nationals (TCNs), so we saw plenty of Ugandans, Philippinos, etc. hard at work. Not so many Kuwaitis. Also they drive like maniacs over there and many soldiers told me they were more nervous about driving on the highway than they were about going around on patrol.

However, of all the facts I learned about Kuwait all pale in comparison to this one:

There is no alcohol in Kuwait.

Not a drop, at least not legally. I wonder if instead of drug pushers on the street corners of the bad parts of town they’ve got guys who open up their robes to show them lined with cans of beer.

“Pst. Hey, buddy. Whatcholookinfor? I got Budwieser… the best.”

Pastis said by the end of the trip we would be setting a record for the longest time any group of cartoonists were together without drinking a drop of alcohol. Actually I think we set that record while waiting in line to go through customs… after that it was all extra.

In the lobby of the Radisson

In the lobby of the Radisson

Without a lobby bar to go to we just went to our rooms and crashed, or at least slept as much as the jet lag allowed.

Sunday, October 18th

The Kuwait City Radisson is a pretty nice place, as armed fortresses go. It’s a “western” hotel and caters to those folks, so it’s extremely secure. Right on the gulf, it had a maritime museum in a replica antique ship and was generally very picturesque except for the razor wire. Like all hotels, it had conference rooms and hosted conventions. In fact, there was one going on during our stay… a makeup company convention. I’m not sure what they had to talk about, since once you get past the eye shadow and mascara isn’t everything else is kind of a waste in middle-east countries? Maybe their tagline is “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful… under this Burka.” Actually there were several very beautiful models walking about without veils, so I’m sure it’s a booming business.

That's a big ball...
That’s a big ball…

The maritime museum in Kuwait
The maritime museum in Kuwait

The Gulf
The Gulf

Boarding the bus to Camp Arifjan
Boarding the bus to Camp Arifjan

After an early morning lobby call we were off on the bus to Camp Arifjan, the center of the forces in Kuwait. We met and were briefed by John McCay, the director of the Area Support Group for Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) in Kuwait. It’s these folks’ job to make life a little easier and provide some distractions and comforts to the deployed soldiers on these bases. They build gyms, rec centers, theaters, game rooms, etc as places were soldiers can unwind when off duty. One of things I noticed upon reaching Arifjan was… a Starbucks. Is it oddly comforting to know that even on a military base in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert you can get a Carmel Mocha Latte fix if you need one? No, it’s frightening actually.

American forces in Kuwait operate under a defense cooperation Agreement with the Kuwaiti government. Entered into in 1991 after the first gulf war, the agreement is still in effect and under it the U.S. trains Kuwati forces, security and services, and in return Kuwait provides port access and pays for buildings, construction services, roads and supplies for US bases and personnel. Most of the nicest buildings, permanent structures and services you find on the bases are usually paid for by the Kuwaiti’s under the DCA.

After our briefing we split into two groups of five and headed out to two different forward operating bases (FOBs) each. My group consisted of myself, Jeff Keane, Jeff Bacon, Mike Peters and Chip Bok. We traveled via SUV with a security force. Kuwait is flat. And sandy. And that’s about it. The scenery was only broken by the occasional camp of tents of sheep farms and one of these now and then:

Shouldn't it be "Burger Emir"?Shouldn’t it be “Burger Emir”?

Our first stop was Camp Buehring, the most northern of the US camps in Kuwait about 15 miles from the Iraqi border. It was named after Lt. Colonel Charles H. Buehring, who was killed in 2003 in a rocket attack in Baghdad. After meeting with some camp officers we headed out to the DFAC (that’s the mess hall) for some lunch and then to the USO center on base to draw for the troops. No time for a doppio espresso.

Camp Buehring’s primary purpose is as a staging/training area for troops ahead into Iraq. You could tell that the soldier’s there were headed into the war zone… they were all a little more intense. We set up and drew for a little over two hours. It’s funny how differently the soldiers and personnel we meet look at our time with them.

Alpha Team at Camp Buehring
Chip Bok, Mike Peters, me, Jeff Keane, Jeff Bacon

It never fails that within the first few seconds of meeting them, they thank me profusely for coming all the way to be there, draw for and spend time with them. That’s funny because I look at it as a great honor and privilege to be able to do this, and whatever long days and travel issues and such that we may go through is nothing compared to the sacrifice these men and women are making to serve our country. I would walk to the middle east if I could to do this small thing to show my appreciation to these soldiers.

At Camp Buehring
At Camp Buehring

Jeff Keane drawing away...
Jeff Keane drawing away…

Mike Peters!
Mike Peters!

Alpha Team in Action!!
Alpha Team in Action!! Photo: Jackie Zettles/USO

Chip looks like he's up to no good
Chip looks like he’s up to no good

Me drawing another caricature
Me drawing another caricature- Photo: Jackie Zettles/USO

Another's Mike Peters Moment!

I swear Mike can talk anybody into anything. One of the officers showing us around was a spitfire named Sgt. Price. Shortly after lunch Mike is sporting a new hat… Sgt. Price’s military issue fatigue/patrol cap complete with his name on the Velcro strip on the back (Price, not Peters). I know from experience trying to buy one of those patrol caps at a PX that civilians are not allowed to buy or have them when on active bases, and I am pretty sure base personnel are not supposed to give them away to visiting cartoonists, no matter how many times they are hugged. Mike wore that hat around the rest of the week. Sgt. Price, to the best of my knowledge, spent no time in the brig for violating regulations.

After Camp Buehring we were off to Camp Virginia. Camp Virginia is sort of the opposite of Buehring… it is a staging area for troops coming BACK from Iraq, where they decompress before going back home. Naturally the mood here was a lot more loose and stress-free. We had dinner at the DFAC and then set up again in the local USO center for more drawings and visits with the soldiers.

Jeff at Camp Virginia
Jeff Bacon at Camp Virginia

My interaction with those coming up to visit with me was basically the same overtime, but despite the fact that I asked the same questions it never got mundane nor felt like I was going through the motions. Each of these people has a story, and they are very happy to tell you all about their lives back home, what they do or have done down range and where they are going int he future. It never gets old to listen to their stories, because they have an enthusiasm about sharing that is so infectious you cannot help but be interested in what they have to say. One thing I learned is that for most of these soldiers life is very mundane and repetitive. The old adage goes that for every soldier on the front lines there are ten soldiers in the back supporting him. That is very true. The vast majority of the work, jobs and responsibilities of the people on these bases is simply sustaining the base the the personnel. Water, food, supplies, quarters, vehicle maintenance, roads, etc…. 95% of the personnel in these camps are working just to keep the camp operational… only a few are going into harm’s way and running patrols or missions. My most overheard comment from the soldiers was how they appreciated our visit “breached up the monotony” of their days.

The other grouped visited Camp Ali Alsylem (The Rock) and Camp LSA. Since our group was so much more personable and handsome I am sure they didn’t do as well as we, but tried their best.

We met back up at the hotel that night, forgoing dinner on the bases in order to all eat together at a restaurant in the hotel. This was a bad idea, as jet lag and the non-stop travel/ exertions of the last four days caught up with most of us and we were like zombies blearily munching our machos. Fortunately as tired as I was I remembered not to order pork chops.

Monday, October 19th

The Band!
R to L: Jeff Bacon, Chip Bok, Stephan Pastis, Rick Kirkman, Mike Peters,
Jeff Keane, Mike Ramirez, Garry Trudeau, Bruce Higdon, me
Photo: Jackie Zettles/USO

The next day we were scheduled to depart mid-morning to Camp Ali Alsylem to catch the first of many military transport flight, this one taking us into Iraq. We received an authentic experience, discovering the old Army slogan “Hurry up and wait” still applies. Military flights fly when they fly, and get bumped and moved about very frequently as shifting needs dictate. In our case a morning flight was canceled and we were not to depart until that evening. This actually helped us out a lot, as we had all afternoon in the hotel to unwind and rest up. Turns out there is a pool at the Kuwait City Radisson.

Later that night we went to Ali Alsylem to catch our flight into Iraq. Upon arriving at the camp we were issued a helmet and vest, which are necessary to wear at all times when flying military aircraft long with long sleeves and long pants. Personally I’d have preferred a parachute to a Kevlar vest, since in the event of a crash having an extra 30 pounds of metal strapped to my chest would not help matter much. Regulations are regulations, however.

Geared Up!
Me, Jeff B and Bruce getting settled on the C-17

Big plane...
Interior of the C-17

How does this seatbelt work??
How does this seatbelt work?? Chip, Jackie, Stephan and Garry.

The latrine door on the plane...
The latrine door on the plane…

We boarded a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, one of the large cargo planes that the back opens up like a hanger. We couldn’t take pictures on the airfield as that is restricted, but these are big planes and incredibly loud. Service was definitely lacking as we didn’t even get a lousy bag of peanuts. We did get earplugs, however, which was appreciated.

On the way to Iraq I was informed the fight crew wanted caricatures drawn of them, so I hauled my drawing board up into the cockpit and drew both pilots and two navigators while we were in the skies over southern Iraq. Now whenever anyone asks me where the oddest place I’ve ever drawn was, I can say in a C-17 military plane at 20,000 feet over a war zone in Iraq. Unless I go to the moon and draw some astronauts I doubt I’ll be topping that one anytime soon. I was too busy drawing to take any pictures. When I wrapped up the last one I stood up to leave but the pilots insisted I strap in and stay in the cockpit for the landing as a way of showing their appreciation for my efforts. So I found myself wearing a headset and looking at the night skies over Baghdad as we passed by and come in for a landing at COB Speicher in Tikrit. We flew with no lights and did some evasive maneuvers on the way in, and I got to listen to the pilots as they discussed their approach with technical jargon like:

“Do you see the runway?”

“I think it’s that dark patch on the right of that bright thing over there.”

“That thing?”

“No, your other right.”

Touchdown in Tikrit, in one piece. No peanuts.

Tomorrow: IRAQ!

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