It was with a great sense of satisfaction that I successfully mailed out my drawings to the families and loved ones of the soldiers and Marines whom I had the pleasure of drawing. Getting this second set of drawings, and one watercolor, together for this posting, provided a number of opportunities to reflect on the service men and women whom I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to.I didn’t take copious journalistic notes like Dan Boever, whose postings on his own web page have been real treats to read, if for no other reason than to review the details I missed while intently trying to capture features or gestures of the people I was drawing.It’s not often that I engage in lengthy conversations while trying to draw my subjects. With the usually short time frame I have to capture a likeness, or likenesses, at any given location, my concentration zeroes in as best as possible on the person, searching for what makes the subject unique.I forget to talk, make small talk.What kind of story will the drawing reveal from the marks and lines made as honestly as possible?That’s always the challenge. A fellow reportorial artist who also had the good fortune to spend time with Howard Brodie mentioned to me last week that Howard told him,“Don’t draw what you feel- draw what you see.”
Not having the advantage of observing myself and the nature of the exchange that would go on between my models and myself, it’s easy to underestimate the impact that a mere drawing can make on the subject.Dan Boever would remark to me that the energy and excitement from these soldiers and Marines watching me draw them or their comrades was very different from how they would react to being photographed.Everybody gets photographed.Not everyone gets a drawing done of themselves. Lines and markings on a blank sheet of paper that build into a person, a person you recognize.And you’re watching it happen even as you sit still and maybe get teased by those around you.If memory serves me well, often my immediate area got pretty still as the process was being observed. Apparently there were a lot of smiling faces paying attention around me that I wasn’t keeping track of. The positive effect is compounded if it actually bears a resemblance to the model.
I’ve mentioned it in the previous posting, but so many of these servicemen and women seemed to have come from central casting.They could be movie stars with their chiseled good looks and non-civilian physiques.The Marines as a rule, both men and women, fell into this observation the easiest.So many great character studies.Their naturally genial and polite dispositions, once they started talking, quickly and consistently mitigated any intimidation a civilian might justifiably feel just hanging in their presence.This is not to say they weren’t intense, but it was an intensity that neither threatened nor felt a need to be on display.But you knew it was there from the passion in their conversations.
1st Sgt. Chester Wilson had observed me drawing and requested one of himself. We had to move on but I took a couple of photos of him from which I worked after returning home. The result.
Col. Gamelin was one of several examples of working on an unfinished original back in the studio that started falling apart once the studio lines started to intersect with the spontaneous, intuitive lines done on the spot. So I redid it using some pictures. Backing my drawings up with photo reference has become nearly second nature. Actually, this re-do allowed me to play with textures and skin tones. The Colonel has a great face.
Very very little added after returning home. This is essentially the drawing done in the few minutes I had time. Maybe it really wasn't a few minutes and only felt that way. No matter because CWO4 Dan Fink was a remarkable and game model.
Poor Chief Warrant Officer Fink. He stood like a statue- immobile- in this hot sun. Didn't move any muscle other than his mouth's while he talked to me. A great model and an absolute gentleman. "I've never done this before." he said with quiet understatement. I think he could have held that pose for the rest of the day if necessary. That inner discipline.
Gunnery Sgt. Luna was such a gentle bear of a man. His fellow Marines kidded him incessantly while I drew.
Truly one of the most interesting individuals encountered on this trip. We met David Lally, Senior Enlisted Leader at Camp Bastion's Hospital. He was our guide through the facilities there and, from my point of view, had such a Clint Eastwood vibe to him. I turned to Dan Boever at one point as we were walking around and, nudging him, said, "Pay attention. This is Clint Eastwood." Dan looked at me at first, confused, and replied, "What? What are you talking about?" "Just watch. Follow behind for a little."
Lally explained to us that the hospital facility was second to none with the best trauma unit he could imagine; that the premier doctors and surgeons from around the world came there to work their magic dealing with the most horrific wounds from the theater of combat. Dan Boever's notes record Lally's explanation of the "golden hour"- if the wounded can arrive within 35 minutes the odds on saving them increase immensely. They served not only the military casualties but the civilian population. The hospital ER staff is British; their empathy and concern natural and open hearted, their unflagging good humor amidst the obviously challenging circumstances truly moving. There was a section where donated supplies and personal items were collected to give not only to the wounded warriors but to the civilians, in particular the children. The hospital can always use more donated supplies (warm, comfortable stuff- blankets, socks, gym shorts). I don't feel I am violating confidence here by posting Lally's email if you wish to find out how to contribute something. DAVID.LALLY@AFG.USMC.SMIL.MIL
A tall, lean man with wide, sloping shoulders, Lally spoke in a gentle, secure voice that revealed the huge responsibilities he bore running the administrative side of the hospital. He spoke in genuine awe not only of the staff but of the resiliency of the local population, in particular the children. "My daughter scratches her knee and she's crying for hours. These kids lose a limb and they want to get on with their lives." I found myself curious about how someone with his duties handled the daily stress. He sort of smiled and credited a daily gym workout with maintaining his balance. Even as he spoke to us a med-evac copter was landing with another casualty and we were directed away from the emergency room area to another ward. Obviously, it was the kind of scene I would have really wanted to record on paper.
As we followed behind him, Boever nudged me and whispered in a confirming tone, "Gran Torino."
Major Eric Hughes is an interesting story. His mother is a performance artist/dancer. Cultured, smart, very sharp and funny, he's been in the Army for 14 years. I asked him how his mother felt when he joined up. He answered that she felt normal maternal concern but respected his decision. He spoke of the shift that he felt was happening with the local population, and the growing cooperation that's been following as a result, now that the Afghanis feel more certain and secure that we are staying and the Taliban is losing control. It is the common sense of people who are survivors of generations of war. They'll side with whom they sense will be the winner. To my question of what was the message that he felt wasn't getting across clear enough back home he responded, "It takes time. This will not be resolved in a year or two. This is a long term project." And doable as far as he is concerned. Americans, for any number of reasons want things done and done now. We're impatient and that's not an attitude that will allow success in something that requires a long view.
His sunglasses gave him a Richard Belzer vibe in the portrait that I didn't notice till later.
By the looks of the drawing, 2nd Lt. McCarley appears lanky, yet he did his 20 pull ups, without any sway in form, at the bar outside the DFAC prior to entering for lunch. Another one of those very quick drawings that still managed to capture something. Very cool dude.
I never got a chance to do a drawing of Col Loretta Reynolds who was our most senior host at Camp Leatherneck. A more gracious and concerned leader would be difficult to find. Given her enormous responsibilities, it was a wonder that she stopped by to check in on us so often. Luckily I snapped enough pictures and was able to work up a portrait back in the studio. I was looking to catch that combination of, dare I say, toughness and sensitivity.
Col. Reynolds' right hand man. Sgt. Major Neil O'Connell. My original drawing was partially destroyed in one of the copter rides. While trying to do another drawing in the windy interior of the copter, the page with his portrait got torn in the violent flapping of the sketchbook pages. Luckily photos saved the day.
Inside the Wounded Warriors tent. Thanks to Dan Boever for the pix.
Given the circumstances I felt that serious drawings weren't going to add much to the experience. Caricatures seemed to do the trick just fine.
Two guys who originally hailed from New Jersey saying hello. 2 star General Mills and yours truly. Tom Lehman's in the background. Photo by Dan Boever.
We met a few of the British servicemen and women. All were almost stereotypically charming and ebullient of character. And POLITE, almost to a fault. Major Edmundson, of the Royal Marines, was a striking example of the dashing, chiseled character actor one would find in those great Brit B/W flicks that usually included Trevor Howard. He became very alert that I suddenly started sketching him (very small window of opportunity as his talk wasn't long) and wanted to see the results. The Major seemed very pleased and eager to send the drawing to his father back home.
My 'quick study' that turned into a 22"x30" watercolor. Major Patrick Zenk and his med-evac crew. The Army copters handled the rescue operations, landing in hostile fire to rescue and deliver casualties to the base ER's. The Marine unit which was right next door at the airfield would provide the protection from the air with their Cobra copters, very nasty looking machines that pack brutal firepower.
I had managed one drawing at the Army unit, that of Major Hughes, when Major Zenk came walking over looking for me. "Can you just do a quick drawing of me and my crew by our helicopter. Nothing fancy. Just a few quick lines." I thought to myself, "Oh my God, he really thinks it's that easy." I also couldn't refuse this request from guys who are getting shot at on a frequent basis. Yelling to the rest of the gang to wait a few moments, I walked with the Major out to his copter explaining on the way over that a drawing of that complexity takes some time which I didn't have right then, but I would shoot some photos and work something up when I returned home. They posed, making sure the number of their copter was clear to view and I snapped away. Back in the studio it became apparent that in order to get some idea of what these men looked like in front of their machine, the drawing needed to get bigger. Several attempts later I arrived at a respectable size to give definition to their features. It was then that the idea of doing the picture in watercolor overrided any consideration of rendering in pencil. Both high and low resolution files were sent to the Major earlier this week and the crew was very happy and grateful.
Thanksgiving in Afghanistan with Troops First Foundation Part 1
It’s been almost a week since returning home from what was essentially a drive-by visitation of soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, and, hundreds of dollars into bronchial meds, I’m still hawking the country out of my lungs.I say drive-by because the actual time in country during the week long trip was closer to a little less than 4 days in total.The remainder was time spent in transit and getting visa clearance in both directions through Kuwait.The breathing issue and consequent hacking was aggravated by the fantastic levels of talcum powder fine dust and sand that was constantly in swirl on the dry desert of Afghanistan.I know that there are parts of Afghanistan that are lush with vegetation and farming.But we saw none of it.We were in the desert in the Helmand province and it extended as far as the eye could see.Flat, windy, landscape with powdery sand inches deep.The very act of walking kicked up cloud storms.Put a bunch of people together, it got worse.Have some armored vehicles go by and you were looking into an endless thick fog of dust.It was everywhere; we looked like living breathing versions of Pigpen from the Charlie Brown comics.
I started out the trip with a slight cold, a not unexpected consequence of burning the candle at both ends attempting to tie everything together, professionally and personally, before leaving.Literally the last thing checked off the list was stopping by our attorney’s office, on the way to the airport, and updating the last will and testament- something that left Terri feeling just a bit uneasy, but not nearly as much as her finding on the notepad at home the name and number of my life insurance agent which I scribbled before exiting the door.
By the time I was boarding the plane my throat felt sore and my eyes were burning.But both the flight to D.C. to hook up with the other traveling members of the Troops First Foundation tour as well as the thirteen and a half hour flight to Kuwait went smoothly. Rick Kell, the co-founder and executive director of TFF was waiting for us at Dulles.“Us” included golf icon, PGA champ and Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman, golf long driver and trick shooter funnyman, Dan Boever, and up and coming country singer and songwriter, Matt Snook, recently relocated to, (where else?) Nashville, Tennessee.The one massive glitch in this tour was that the other co-founder of TFF, former golfer, CBS PGA color commentator, GOLF magazine columnist (whose columns I’ve been illustrating since the mid 90’s), crazyman and angel, and good friend, David Feherty, was not going to be with us because of emergency surgery on his ear canals.It came out of the blue but he was strongly advised not to fly because of the potential for permanent damage to his hearing.He was crushed.We felt terrible for him but quickly decided that the only course of action was to rally and carry on with the show.Sort of like a Bob Hope USO tour without Hope.Even so, there was no option other than plowing ahead.Adapt, improvise, overcome.
Our statuses were bumped up to business class, thanks to Mr. Kell, so sleep was actually possible.We landed in Kuwait early in the afternoon, worked our way through check out and baggage claim with relative ease (my memories of two years ago in the airport were of a situation more chaotic) and quickly hopped over to our first stop, Ali Al Salem Air Base- well, as quickly as you can in Kuwaiti traffic.Pretty insane driving habits.Seemingly no rules.You saw no fender benders, just complete wrecks off to the side of the highway and did in fact work our way around a total wipe out that must have happened just moments ahead of us.We spent the remainder of the day at Al Salem getting settled while our visas went through the required 24 hour waiting period.This allowed us the opportunity to begin making the rounds meeting members from all the military services, mostly Army.We gathered at the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) building.Tom Lehman and Dan Boever sat down to sign autographs and shake hands.Matt Snook soon started playing his guitar and singing songs, eventually doing some duets with an Army officer.They sounded quite fine from my vantage point, which soon became my spot to do some drawings.I had been walking around trying to get a feel for the place and the people while taking a tour of the facility, all the while doing some inner probing to assess if my skills were ready to be exercised.The lighting was poor, the setting not very dynamic, even with a couple of soldiers playing pool.In all honesty, I was just nervous.The first drawings are the roughest.There’s a hesitancy to put yourself on the line especially when dropped into a completely new environment.It’s like jumping into a cold pool.Intellectually you know your body will adjust relatively quickly; it’s just all that thinking beforehand.Happily for me, my first portrait satisfied the doubter in me.And Chief Warrant Officer Adam Martin seemed very pleased.The remainder of the tour saw that sense of inner security ebb and flow.Sometimes I felt hot, sometimes not.
I was mostly doing portraits during this tour of the various bases.Occasionally there was an opportunity to do something more in the reportorial vein, like during a helicopter flight, or watching a demonstration of the canine unit in training at Camp Leatherneck.I could have spent a day with the canine unit, so much potential material was there.Everything seemed pretty fast paced during those few days.Reviewing the photos and scanning the drawings back home at the studio I am made even more aware of how rapidly the flow of events went.Sometimes, as you were being introduced and shaking hands and listening to descriptions of the bases and facilities and various functions of the units, often in a constant steady pace of motion with very little opportunity to stop and stay in one spot and scribble, interesting side stories were playing out of the corner of your eye, images that would tell great stories.At one Marine base, outside the hospital tent, listening to our guide explain the capabilities of the medical unit and personnel, I noticed to my left two Afghanis standing in an open courtyard of sorts, just standing, very neat and clean looking, thick long beards, rubbing their hands, looking vaguely lost, a little edgy.I initially thought they were family members taking a break outside, as there were civilians being treated inside for wounds.Maybe they were waiting to use the port-a-johns in front of them.But Army and Marine personnel were stepping in and out and the Afghanis did nothing.Quickly, my attention was drawn to a lone soldier (Marine?) in t-shirt standing near them, his posture and attitude focused on the two men.It occurred to me that maybe these weren’t family.I turned to one our Marine escorts who was with us almost the entire tour, and asked, “Are these prisoners?”He nodded in the affirmative?I watched a little more and then turned back to him.“They look so neat and gentle, almost biblical.”A few seconds later I broached the question, “They’d cut your throat in a second, correct?”Our escort was quick to answer, “Yes they would…and so would their kids.”Before I had a chance to grab the pencils and position the pad we were off to another spot.
A number of assumptions I had prior to leaving turned out to be wrong, at least for the period of time that we spent there.One was, considering the news reports,imagining that we would be heading into a RESTREPO kind of situation, helicopter landings under a hail of gunfire and doing our tour dodging RPGs and bullets, not to mention digging holes in the ground to take a dump.Wrong.I don’t recall hearing one shot fired even in practice.The sense of being in the middle of a surreally placid kind of Mars landscape was inescapable.This is not to say the circumstances were all peace and quiet.Visiting the wounded warriors in the hospital tents, seeing injured civilians being treated with equal care and concern, having a tour of the ER facility at Bastion cut short as a med-evac copter arrived with more wounded, and attending a late night ceremony at Camp Leatherneck where the casket of a fallen Marine was being loaded onto a cargo plane for transport back home were vivid reminders of the reality that is the current war.The late night casket loading was particularly striking from a visual standpoint.Two long formations of three rows each of Marines of all ages at silent attention, facing each other across a passageway where the casket filed past to the plane, the stark lighting on the ground and the shadows on the faces, and the clear deep blue night sky begged for some recording.But it was all quiet and solemn.Drawing, unfortunately, was not an option under the circumstances, at least not under the conditions of our mission.I was not really there as a journalist.I tried to do a quick study of the scene as soon as the ceremony was over but the Marines disbanded pretty quickly.
I was also under the impression that these bases we were visiting were going to be small outpost type of settings.Wrong again.The FOBs (Forward Operating Base) of Camps Bastion and Dwyer and especially Camp Leatherneck are enormous.Staggering in size and complexity.Airports large enough to land a fleet of C-17s.Much of the expansion has been within the past year from what I gathered talking to the Marines.The DFACSs (dining facility) were huge and the choice of food substantial.After a certain point none of us could even contemplate eating another bite.Sleeping quarters were very comfortable in comparison to what I remember from Iraq two years ago.The latrines were first class and the showers had water pressure far better than what we can muster here at our own humble home in upstate New York (damn that well).If you could exclude the endless desert and choking dust clouds, a person could do far worse staying at any number of other places.All this is a way of saying that anyone who thinks that we are drawing down in some substantial manner within a year or two is dreaming.It seems pretty obvious that we treating this struggle as a long term investment in order to have a chance at making a difference.The bases I saw are positioned in the desert in such a way as to give the soldiers and Marines rapid response capability without being target practice for the Taliban.This allows them to concentrate on outreach and connection with the locals, helping them build schools and creating educational opportunities for women (remember this a nation with a staggering illiteracy rate), set up wells and irrigation systems and options for farming other than raising poppy.The outreach to the women, performed by the female units of the Marines is greatly assisted by Afghan Americans returning to provide translation services.Talking to some of the women Marines involved with this outreach it was clear that they were truly grateful for the assistance of these former nationals returning home to help make a difference, or as they would say, “Take Afghanistan back from the Taliban”.
I’ll end Part 1 by noting that one assumption that remained accurate, based on my previous experience in Iraq with Troops First, was in terms of the genuine gratitude these soldiers and Marines expressed for our visiting them during Thanksgiving week.It’s quite humbling to be pulled over to the side and told by these people privately how much something as simple as showing up, saying hello, shaking hands, doing a drawing (or singing a song like Matt, or showing proper golf swing form like Tom, or just plain kidding around like Dan) means to these people stuck on Mars for eight months to a year, very far from home.Yes, there is internet there and cell phone service, but seeing people, civilians, someone other than the masses of military personnel, from back home is a remarkable morale booster.From the corporal to the general the thank you’s were profusive and from the heart.I felt the onus to do the best drawing I could, sometimes feeling like I fell short.But the reality was that it didn’t matter to them.It was the gesture.The professional in me has scant patience for gestures and wishes to hit every ball out of the park and we know what the statistics on that are.
I want to express my sincere gratitude to David Feherty and Rick Kell for once again inviting me on this journey. As crappy as I was feeling by the end I wouldn't have traded it for anything. I would like to strongly encourage anyone interested in contributing to Troops First Foundation to visit their website and get the lowdown. They've been doing great things with wounded warriors. http://www.troopsfirstfoundation.org/ We had an incredible team and worked as such. I want to thank the brilliant and relentlessly funny Dan Boever for taking pictures of me in action so that I finally have a more complete documentation of what an idiot I looked like. Mr. Tom Lehman was everything an Olypian god from the world of golf could be, a true gentleman and stand up human being. The best part about this is that I haven't swung a golf club since 19 and I have something over my brother-in-law and his father who are golf fiends. HAH! Matt Snook brought a true air of low keyed gentility and generous spirit as a man and a s a musician. There were a number of times while drawing I would hear this soulful, moving song he was singing and shout out across the room, "That was beautiful, Matt. Who wrote that?" and he'd answer, "I did." Nashville is going to be a better place with him there.
All the service men and women were true joys to be around. I found particular comfort and pleasure with the members of the Marine Corps, first through the association via our Sergeant son and then just from the truly sincere enthusiasm and espirit de corps that flowed from them. I was impressed with their sense of mission and purpose. It's humbling.
For far more detailed, and funny, accountings of our trip check out these links to GOLFWEEK via Dan Boever's Facebook page. He's done a smash up job, and he's such a great read.
Staff Sergeant Barton, who oversaw our stay at Camp Ali Al Salem in Kuwait. A truly sweet woman with over thirty years in the military.
My first drawing on the mission. At Al Salem. Warrant Officer Martin was a perfect subject to get my bearings and start feeling some confidence.
Z's on a C-17. If you learn anything about the military, and having a son in the Corps is further confirmation, they can sleep standing up given the opportunity. One never knows when the next chance will come by.
So many of the soldiers and Marines looked like they were straight out of central casting. This Ranger quite frankly looked like Sgt. Rock. He was granite like and furrowed brow, but his expression softened and opened up like a rainbow when I explained what I was doing and asked him where he wanted the drawing sent.
Some on the C-17 made time to read.
This poor Specialist got really nervous once he realized I was drawing him. I crossed over the wide cabin to explain my mission and his face lightened up considerably and he gave me an address back home to send the original. All the originals are going to family. I keep the scans.
The team that accompanied us most of the trip in Afghanistan. I had a particular paternal-ish affection for Cpl. Megan Sindelar. I didn't understand the connection until after I returned home, was able to download the images into the puter and realized that she reminded me of my niece, Chloe, only about ten years older. She was our photographer on base at Camp Leatherneck. A funny, super young woman.
Gunnery Sergeant Christof Coleman. A very quiet, funny, intense Marine. Had some very interesting stories of growing up and boot camp. A person could feel very secure if Gunny had your back.
Sgt. Josh Lackey. Pit bull physique; warm, funny personality. This was straight attempt from across the table.
I loved Lackey's physique. He's built like a power lifter and those arms never really touched the sides. They sort of hung suspended. "Memory" in the title was how I visualized him if he were to be caricatured. You'll see later that I worked from a photo on this.
My son, Ben, told me it would be to my benefit to bring along some chew. Certainly won me some brownie points with Josh that I had some Copenhagen Wintergreen chewing tobacco. Chew seemed to be very popular at the bases. My carton of American Spirits went pretty quick as well. A nice change from the crap they had to normally smoke.
Corporal Goodroe acted as our driver. A great person to just hang with and jaw. He gave me quite a detailed history of the expansion of the base and still seemed utterly awed by what had been accomplished since February.
The tables get turned. While I was doing Sgt. Lackey's portrait, he informed me across the table that he had studied art in school as well. I passed the tablet and pencils over to him and gave him his shot. He apologized for not having touched a pencil in years. I frankly was impressed by his gameness and the result. HooRAH.
Last but by no means not least, Captain Arocho. I had developed such great respect for her and her incredible blend of toughness and empathy that I never even thought of asking her her first name. Always referred to her as Captain.
I'm not drawing Captain Arocho here, but Gunny Vandentop sitting across from me who was busy scarfing down a meal and getting some fast points across the table. He was totally taken aback that I had been drawing him. Good man. Good people.
Cpl. Goodroe, Sgt. Lackey, some idiot, and Gunny Coleman. Could you feel any safer?
One of my early sketches that made me feel good.
On the bus to the air base before flying off in the C-17. Had but a few minutes in almost complete darkness to catch this Sergeant in the Army. I asked him where he hailed from; he replied that being an Army brat he never had a designated home.
The canine units alone would have provided days worth of images. If we were there, 20/25 minutes it was long, before we had to move on. I was heartbroken.
Belgian Shepherds got a big thumbs up. Pitbulls, which I thought would be an obvious choice, are considered great dogs but stubborn. Not reliable.
This picture doesn't even do justice to how far out these copter crews lean as they survey the ground thousands of feet below for trouble. Steel cable muscles.
Ocean liners that fly. That's the only way I can describe C-17s.
L to R. Dan Boever, Tom Lehman, Scruffy McDoodles, Cpl. Sindelar, Matt Snook, and Rick Kell.