The Embed in the Stan

JULY 29, 2012

July 28, 2012.


A year ago today I was on my way to Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan.


It seemed perfectly natural to be heading there and at the same time it seemed perfectly crazy.  Other than my Marine son, the rest of the family saw it as some sort of death wish, or postponed mid-life crisis exercise coming to fruition.  Something I needed to get out of my system.  Something I, an admitted life-long coward, needed to prove to myself.  From where I stood, at 57 years of age, realizing that I wasn’t getting any younger, these concerns seemed perfectly arguable and, in fact, on point. 


My wife, Terri, while not enthusiastic and sharing the already mentioned reservations, also read this adventure as a logical extension of the reportorial work I had already been doing for several years working with the USAF Art Program through the Society of Illustrators of which I am a member.  Artists, in small groups, going on assignments to bases around the country, sometimes overseas, documenting in drawings and paintings the various operations of the Air Force.  Rendering planes in the sky or on the ground had not been what drew me to the program. I was looking to draw real people who happen to be warriors; to witness and create images both on the spot and back in the studio telling their stories with the added benefit that the artwork would eventually become part of the permanent collection of the Air Force.  My favorite assignments up to that point were the training exercises for Urban Operations, Combat Control and ParaRescue (PJ) teams. 


Some of the assignments, however, could also feel like group tours with the artists moving from one location and task to the next without the benefit of absorbing the energy of any one setting and developing a sense, that comes with repetition and familiarity, of what to look for and where to be when it happens.  Being part of a group often also meant dealing with various agendas and individual levels of enthusiasm and energy.  I would find that my best work happened once I managed to break off from the pack and linger at one spot, or, as with the PJs, meet up for late night exercises after the other artists had gone to bed.   The seed was planted during these moments that I could do so much more if I had a chance to embed in one spot with one group for an extended period of time, and that when returning home I would not have the nagging feeling that my momentum and skills were jelling just as the assignment was coming to an end. 


These Air Force assignments were also overlapping with my work with Troops First Foundation, a troop support organization founded by former ad executive Rick Kell and former golf pro and CBS PGA commentator David Feherty, whose columns for GOLF Magazine I'd illustrated since he began writing for them in the mid 90's.  This long term collaboration with David had forged a close friendship over the years and in 2008, and then again in 2010, he invited me to accompany TFF on tours of Iraq and Afghanistan respectively ( I have since done another one last Thanksgiving in Kuwait.).  My function was to tag along and draw the soldiers and Marines during these celebrity golf pro meet and greets.  I took down names and addresses of family and loved ones and, upon returning home, tweaked the originals, sometimes redrawing those that proved unsatisfactory on second look, scanned them for my files and mailed the drawings to the designated recipients. 


The Troops First assignments were remarkable if for no other reason than I was on location in places I never would have expected to actually visit in this lifetime.  We were given protected Camp Cupcake VIP treatment at the various FOBs.  The drawback, again with these celebrity meet and greets turned out to be even more hurried affairs with scant chance to absorb what I was witnessing.  On any number of locations I found myself thinking that I could easily set up shop and spend a couple weeks drawing. The Thanksgiving week trip to Helmand Province further solidified a desire to do an extended stay. 


It was in Afghanistan with Troops First that I met Major Patrick Zenk and his Army MEDEVAC team at Camp Dwyer in Helmand.  I was completing a portrait of a soldier when he came up and with all seriousness asked me to do a “fast” drawing of him and his team by their Blackhawk.   “You know, a quick sketch.  A few lines.”  I explained, with a laugh, that a 'fast' drawing of them with their Blackhawk in the short time we had remaining at the camp was a no go, but promised to do something based on photos I brought back with me.  It turned into a pretty large watercolor, which I scanned and sent in high-resolution to Major Zenk and his team.  They were impressed and appreciative and he invited me back to embed if I ever wanted to.  I followed up on that invite a few months later with an email to Major Zenk.  His reply was that a hot cup of coffee and a bunk were waiting.  Unfortunately, by the time my media request to embed with them was in the system, their schedule was booked solid with journalists and they were to be returning home by mid summer.  Major Zenk strongly suggested embedding with Major Michael Mendenhall and the 1-52nd Artic Dustoff in Kandahar as a Plan B.  The new request was put in and approved. 


Media requests require an accreditation from a bona fide media organization that they are sending you on an assignment.  I approached Peter Kaplan, for whom I worked for 15 years doing front-page illustrations when he was managing editor at THE NEW YORK OBSERVER.  He had since moved over to Fairchild Publications overseeing fashion mags, but Fairchild was part of Conde Nast and Peter felt the story had possibilities for GQ.  That said, Peter was initially resistant to signing on for me.  “Vic, I know Terri.  If something happens to you, I’m the one who’ll have to call her. I would never forgive myself for giving you permission to go there.”  I told him not to worry- a helicopter was the safest place to be, and I rattled off statistics to back me up. 


Former Marine and combat artist Michael Fay, whom I first met while giving a talk to a Hartford MFA Program class a few months earlier, was good for much advice on speeding up the process of getting the request approved.  Apparently, naming a specific group to embed with and their location was a big plus.  Vagueness doesn’t work well with military public affairs personnel. I had the group, their commander, and where they were stationed.  A visa was required from the consulate for Afghanistan in Manhattan.  That took about a week or so and required leaving my passport for the visa to be affixed inside. 


NATO/ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), approved the request and the ball was rolling.  I next had to find the best flight over there. It’s funny how if you just stand back a bit you find that things fall into place in strangely coincidental ways.  Joan Kilberg, the mother of my promotional consultant at Agency Access, Jennifer Kilberg, also happened to be the travel booker for decades for the National Geographic photographers.  How could you go wrong with that expertise? She worked up the best flight at the best rate she could find and made that part of the process a breeze. 


Michael Fay provided me with the Kevlar and first rate body armor- called dragon skin- from a friend who had just returned from a tour.  For a couple months I wore the armor when I hiked or did my morning walks up and down the road to build up stamina.  The substantial sweats I worked up back home training with the body armor were nothing compared to the full force of the August heat in Kandahar. Simply no comparison.


There was just one glitch.  My public affairs contact in Kabul informed me that military escorts were no longer meeting journalists at the airport.  I would be on my own till I arrived at the other end of Kabul International where the military base and airfield were located.  Also, while promise of staying on the base till you departed for your next location was not a guarantee.  I may have to find lodging in Kabul if I wound up hanging around for more than a day waiting to transit.  This did not seem like fun- especially to my family.  They knew only too well that I am not an Alpha dog personality and were convinced I’d wind up doing something wrong and turning up on some hostage snuff video.  Steve Mumford, a brilliant combat artist/journalist, offered suggestions of places to stay in Kabul if necessary, hotels run by members of the Australian Special Ops. Cool. Sort of James Bond-ish.  The caricaturist Roman Genn, who had also done several embeds in Afghanistan, took care of the concerns about arrival by hooking me up with J.D. Johanes, former Marine and combat journalist, who in turn hooked me up with his friend, Mohammad, a Hazara, who would meet me at the airport.  Within a half hour of J.D.’s email, I received Mohammad’s very savvy email of introduction which started with, “Yo, Bro….”.  I was feeling much better.  I was pumped.  I had a homey waiting for me. 


I returned from Afghanistan with a lot of notes, volumes of pictures, and many drawings.  Peter Kaplan suggested I just start writing and putting everything I had in my journals down on paper.  Editing would come later; it was important first to unload all the impressions while keeping in mind that I should avoid at all costs the trap of writing the great American novel.  Think key events.  Maintaining the focus on telling my story was a complicated affair as I had also returned to my studio life juggling deadlines for publications. The months started adding up though I intuitively felt the right opportunity to make a pitch would happen at the right time.  That time happened when I did a major piece for Fred Woodward at GQ, which I blogged about last December under the title, “The Grand Opus”.  It was a spoof of the Sistine Chapel and the debt crisis.  The illustration turned out very well and Fred was extremely pleased.  His enthusiasm was amplified by praise from editor-in-chief, Jim Nelson.  Taking advantage of all this positive energy I pitched the idea to Fred over the phone.  He was very receptive and asked me to forward copy and images.  Fred worked up a layout to present and I worked with the editor’s suggestions to limit myself to 5 segments of approximately 500 words each. This I did. 


Despite the enthusiasm, it was decided not to run the article in the print version of the magazine.  Fred had great faith in the material and wanted to  post it as a GQ app for iPad  and eventually to post it on GQ online.  Fred handed over the task of putting together the app- the first of such a scale, to Jeffrey Kurtz, who did a magnificent job.  He worked tirelessly on it and deserves the credit for making it flow so well.


My story was fact checked relentlessly.  It felt like every line was combed through for veracity.  I provided names and email contacts for members of the MEDEVAC crew and of anyone else I quoted.  Terminology was double and triple checked.  Phone calls or emails became more frequent as Jeffrey got closer to the publishing deadline but I never felt annoyed by the follow up questions- in fact I felt awed by the journalistic professionalism.  My copy was left largely intact but the editorial tweakings were perfect and added clarity.  I want to thank Michael Allin, Lu Fong and Rafi Kohan for their work. 


The story is now online.

It seems to have lost a couple of the features that the app provided including a sidebar on noteworthy combat artists put together by yours truly as well as some video.  The app is still available for purchase, as part of the digital edition, on your iPad- assuming you have one.  Regretfully I don’t. 


GQ ran a sizeable number of the drawings but I will add some of my favorites here that didn’t make it in. It took almost a year from embed to finally getting this article published and, apart from showing some close friends and confidants under the right circumstances, I’ve pretty much sat on this body of work so as not to compromise publishing them.  So much has been learned from this experience in combat journalism from writing up a request to the final review of content before publishing as well as understanding the sometimes brutal logic behind editing and keeping story flow moving- so many names and observations were taken out.   


It was a unique privilege and honor to have had the opportunity to spend two weeks with the Alaskan 1-52nd Arctic Dustoff as well as with members of Alpha Company 7-101 from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.  I have a number of Facebook friends from the experience and keep in pretty close contact with several of them. Their sacrifices, bravery, and sense of duty are awe inspiring.  Good people, all.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.  Only next time I would prefer to have someone else pick up the flight expense tab. 

Welcome to Kandahar Air Field (KAF). Rousted out of bed early my first morning by a loud knock on the door and instructions to head to the bunkers. A missile attack. As disoriented as I was from the lack of sleep I still managed to grab a pad and pencils. As you can see, these events were more annoying than scarey.

The Afghan police officer on the top came on board fully stabilized but managed in the course of the flight to push off every attempt to assist him, tearing out every IV and repeatedly sitting up which reopened his abdominal wounds. This thoroughly frustrated medic SSGT Kyle Clark because his refusal to cooperate made it difficult to attend to the other victim. By the time we arrived at Hero, the hospital for Afghans, he had so destabilized his condition that the prognosis was grim. "He doesn't realize it but the best care he's going to get was on this Black Hawk."

I asked one of the crew members, probably one of the medics, "Are they recruiting kids at this point?" "Oh, no. He's in his twenties,but the malnutrition makes them look at least 10 years younger."

This drawing opens the GQ article, but what you see online is in color. I scanned in high-res just about everything I did and then made the decision on this one to color it in. No one else seemed to concur with me but I felt something was lost in the addition of color. The spontaneity and energy of the linework was muted in my mind. I swore I would not do that again to a combat drawing.

By weird coincidence I was witness to two transports related to combat stress/PTSD and in this situation, a suicide watch. Apparently not a common event. I could deal with the idea of physical wounds but internal, emotional wounds were different. I had no desire to draw a soldier collapsing under the stress of his deployment. In this drawing the most I indicated was his hand on his knee even as the major focus is on his escort bringing along all his belongings. These were very uncomfortable and sad rides.

Kish Kim. Soft spoken, slight in physique, utterly gentle South Korean professor who has spent much of his adult life when not teaching going to the most insane and dangerous locations as a journalist photographer. The day before I arrived at the ISAF base at Kabul airfield, he took a foot trip outside the military confines and spent the day photographing families at an amusement park (amusement park?) in Kabul. The photos he showed me were beautiful but I kept on wondering about him roaming on his own. Smoked like mad. I didn't know whether he was a Clark Kent or an Indiana Jones type character or both.

Chief Warrant Officer and pilot Meredith Aldins of Alpha Company 7-101 out of Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. 14 years in the service, 6 as a pilot. Another Valkyrie with a soft side. A devotee of the culinary arts she was keeping boredom at bay, plotting out a dining tour R and R of Italy with her husband who was working at another base. She was also in the process of learning to tone down the cursing common in military life for the eventual return to the civilian world. "Shut the front door" was her substitution for the "F" bomb.

Crew chief, Spc. John Sparks could be in the movies. Total Type A personality with a great laugh. Worked out a lot, smoked a lot.

Everyone had a different way of smoking. Chief Warrant Officer Jon-Kristian Edstrom had the best stance, which I tried, unsuccessfully, to capture until the quickly jotted tiny sketch caught the essence.

A very common image. The heat just baked the air inside the bunkers. It was hard enough to breathe. I couldn't imagine smoking in the heat as well. Though I tried once or twice.

Crew chief Sgt.E-5 Kerrine Schenk was a true believer in all respects with the most ethereal blue eyes. Tall, lean, with a tomboy's spirit she jumped around the top of the Black Hawk with complete ease and sense of security.

I had taken a series of photos of Sgt. Schenk doing a maintenance check after a mission and did this painting once back in the comfort of my studio.

A restless sleep after a near stir crazy couple days of non-activity and an early wake up. I went over to the medic tent where Kim kept watch on chatter and information coming in. It was an opportunity to do a more studied drawing. Satisfied with what I had, I took a walk down the road to see what else was worth drawing. I desperately needed to justify my time spent there and would draw anything at that point regardless of how tame the subject matter was.

A group of Afghan soldiers (ANA) were marching and then stopped in front of the transfer station. Simply because the profile was so great I started to draw the soldier in the background when I realized another, closer, one was seriously eye-fucking me. So I started drawing him. All too quickly they marched away for me to get anything more down.

Even in repose, soldiers never stand still. This one comported himself like he was modeling for a Norman Rockwell image. Also didn't get much on paper before he turned and went somewhere else.

The drawing I was working on at the transfer station when I heard the sound of the rotors turning on and the medic and chase teams already hopping on board their Black Hawks. I had screwed up badly, having turned my back to their tents while doing the drawing. The rushed nature of the scramble was unlike anything I had experienced before and I knew this was a very serious Category Alpha. They would leave without me if I didn't get there in time to hop on board. The error of turning my back was compounded further when I realized I did not have my camera with me. Running as hard as I could there was a split second question of whether I should go for the camera and probably be left behind or just hop on board. I hopped on board.

Just 15 minutes from pickup of the mortally wounded GI to drop off at Role 3, the ISAF hospital, was all I had to draw everything I possibly could. I had been cursing myself for not having the camera with me- the one and only time during my entire embed- and yet a part of me felt there was a reason why this lapse happened. The lack of mechanical backup jacked my focus up even harder and in the middle of all the chaos in front of my eyes there was a calm stillness inside me.

The other drawings from the sequence are on the GQ site.

Monitoring chatter. Chatter being the cell phone conversations of the Taliban. One could reasonably predict how soon another scramble would be happening based on following the ambush plans of the Taliban. It was also remarkable to view the interpretations and read how they would discuss using children and old men as decoys, as expendable props, for their traps.

This was Staff Sergeant, medic Kyle Clark's last tour of this type. He was tired; he had had enough. We had a long conversation as I drew him several times till I got this drawing that caught something I was looking for. Tough but philosophical Kyle had very nuanced observations on the situation and the people there. He did not cast judgement. The hardships and short life spans among the populace created a certain detached acceptance, an apathy of sorts, of suffering and dying that we in the relative comfort of the West would have a hard time comprehending. I had heard on various occasions the Afghan hospital, known as Hero, referred to by other members of the various crews in a kind of anger or frustration as the place where "Afghans go to die". Kyle preferred to see it from a cultural standpoint. Whereas the mission of the medic teams was to do everything possible to save a life, for the Afghan populace, death was such an integral part of a short and difficult existence. It was not such a big, frightening deal. Kyle is now at Fort Bragg training in Civil Affairs.

"Back home everyone wants an "I'm in the cockpit" picture. Out here everyone wants the "I'm leaning on the big gun" picture" -Spc. Kayleigh Horn

One could easily understand why Major Michael Mendenhall commanded such respect from his Arctic Thunder teams. Another situation where a long conversation allowed me to arrive at a drawing I was satisfied with capturing the good natured strength and generosity of spirit that characterized Mendenhall's personality.

Medic Jesse Rosenfield.

The final mission of a very long day; a nighttime pickup and delivery of wounded (not sure if they were GI's or contractors). Truly drawing in near pitch black, the occasional flash of light inside allowing me to see for a split second where my pencils actually were moving. Dark enough that I couldn't even tell the colors I was using.

I met Jon Roan, former Army, now contractor, during my last two days in Afghanistan, in the military side of Kabul airfield. We were in the same bunk. He was a remarkably articulate person, obviously has seen a lot, and seemed to exude a strong desire to tell his story. Tagged three times in IED blasts, the last time suffering a brokem back when his truck got hit. Shot at point blank standing guard at an outpost. Finally decided that he had played his luck cards enough as a trigger puller and was back in Afghanistan negotiating contracts for services like cleaning, laundry, calmer stuff. The fact that he returned even after the broken back amazed me. While he admitted that the money was good, I had a strong intuition he was risking his life for something more than just a paycheck.

Most everyone had dreams of what was next in their lives- even if it meant remaining in the service.

This Afghan soldier was in the best mood on the medic chopper considering he had shot himself in the foot. I asked about that and was informed that he had been loaded up with morphine prior to pick up. While some would do so to get out of service I witnessed enough occasions where Afghan soldiers rested the barrel tips of their automatics on their feet which one day prompted an angry shout from Sara Nichols to the soldier to move the gun off the foot.

I was only at Hero, the Afghan hospital, once. It was insisted that I see it at least once. We were dropping off casualties and I tagged along with medic Sherwin and medic-in-training Bergman hopping into the back of the ambulance. I counted at least six times that I was certain the driver would flip the vehicle on its side as he took the turns. But he didn't and he probably drove like this all the time. When I drew this picture of him he seemed possessed to demonstrate he was an active player in the team and was trying to pick up as many litters (stretchers) as possible at one time only to drop them. His buddies were standing behind me watching me draw and were later punching him on the shoulders like he was a celebrity.

"They need to stop feeding the Special Ops so well. Have you ever seen an Afghan that looks anything like a Special Ops? Even with the beards they aren't fooling anybody." - Crew chief Sara Nichols

Tried to draw at times while walking along the long road near the medic tent at Pasab.

A very mundane pickup- twisted ankle, but the drawing worked so well.

One of the Brits I met at Kabul Airfield. I had been doing a watercolor when he stopped by and we got to talking.

A flight approximately an hour that allowed me to draw at leisure this exhausted soldier. Yes, he received a high-res jpeg when I returned.

© 2024 Victor Juhasz