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John Read
Ten cartoonists visited U.S. troops on a USO tour to Germany, Kuwait, and Southwest Asia.
updated 11/11/2011 12:32:22 PM ET 2011-11-11T17:32:22

Sam Viviano makes his living drawing cartoons. But last month he was drawing smiles as well, from U.S. troops around the world.

The Mad magazine illustrator and art director was one of 10 cartoonists who traveled to Germany, Kuwait, and an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia last month to entertain soldiers the way they know best — by drawing funny pictures. Hailing from across America, the group also included T. Lewis, who draws newspaper strip “Over the Hedge”; Bill Janocha, who works on “Beetle Bailey”; illustrator/firefighter Paul Combs, and six other members of the National Cartoonists Society.

The NCS has a tradition of entertaining American troops in cooperation with the USO going back to World War II. Since that tradition was revived in 2008, well-known cartoonists such as Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”), Mike Peters ("Mother Goose and Grimm”) and Jeff Keane (“The Family Circus”) have trekked across the globe to visit U.S. troops, sketchpads in hand.

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Young and old
The first stop for Viviano and his fellow cartoonists when they set off Oct. 17 was the medical center of Ramstein Air Base in Germany, European headquarters of the U.S. Air Force. “As we stood around their beds, chatting with them as we drew cartoons and caricatures, we were all impressed by their upbeat attitudes and positive outlooks,” Viviano wrote today on Mad magazine’s blog, “The Idiotical.” “I was also struck by how young some of them were, a point driven home as I drew a caricature of an airman waiting to be sent home as she clutched a teddy bear in her arms.”

John Read
Sam Viviano, art director and illustrator for MAD magazine, sketches for U.S. troops during a USO tour last month.

Later the same day the cartoonists set up outdoor tables at Ramstein and spent hours drawing by request for long lines of troops and their families. “It was around this time that most of us realized that, to some extent, the cartooning was secondary — the really important thing that was happening was the chance to sit down for 10 or 15 minutes and chat with one of the men or women who had chosen to volunteer for military service,” Viviano wrote. He found them to be a more diverse group than he had expected: not just young people, but also mothers and fathers working on their MBAs and even long-time reservists who were grandparents.

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The group’s next stop was Kuwait in the Persian Gulf, where Viviano found everyone thanking them profusely for coming. Their USO chaperone revealed why: “Imagine the block you live on in your home town; now picture what it would be like if you were unable to leave that block for six months, or for a year. You’d be pretty grateful, too, if someone took the trouble to come visit you.”

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The cartoonists’ last stop was originally going to be Iraq, but due to the reduction of U.S. troops there, it was changed to what the military asked them to refer to as “an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.” Here the accommodations were more spartan — Viviano compared them to “an upscale prison block” — but the artists were able to spend more time with the individuals they met. Each of them, Viviano wrote, “left with something a little more personal: a caricature (sometimes, if requested, of a wife or son or daughter, drawn from a photograph or cell phone) or a drawing of their favorite cartoon character.

“The important thing was the contact, the human interaction, and the chance to say thank you,” Viviano wrote on the Mad magazine blog. “Each time a soldier or airman said, ‘Thank you for coming here,’ our inevitable response was, ‘No, we’re here to thank you for being here in the first place.’ ”

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