War in 2014 is strange. Reliable internet, decent living conditions, and smartphones with data plans. Of course, there are always others who have it worse or better, and there is the ever-present danger of sudden death looming over everyone like a humid day.
Still, the defining characteristic of this deployment (so far) has been just how uncharacteristically similar it is to being back home, at least, in terms of connectivity and following trends.
Through the magic of the internet I learned about Richard Johnson, Senior Graphics Editor for the Washington Post. He is a sketch artist, and is currently traveling in Afghanistan, capturing war with a sketch pad and a ballpoint pen.
I caught some of his drawings being passed around on Twitter, clicked them, shared them, and moved on.
Days later, in one of those tweets being passed around, I caught the familiar face of my Regimental Command Sergeant Major.
“‘My first morning in Forward Operating Base Lightning, Maj. Vance Trenkel, the Third Cavalry’s public affairs officer, asked me to create a little good feeling and sketch someone wearing the Third Cav’s Stetson. Of course I agreed, and made one plaintive request: it had to be some Clint Eastwood-looking crusty veteran of multiple conflicts. “I need to see the grit in the corners of his eyes,” I said.'”
I began following Mr. Johnson on Twitter and we began a short back and forth dialogue. As things would have it, our paths would cross for a few hours somewhere in Afghanistan. We agreed to meet for dinner.
I only had a couple of hours before I had to be on a C-130 and off to another location. Over not-too-bad food, we chatted about how strange it is to be able to arrange for a meeting in a war zone via Twitter, and then agreed that maybe it’s not that weird after all. I lamented the fact that I wasn’t doing anything cool or interesting at the time that was sketch-worthy, but he offered to draw me anyway.
We finished our dinner, grabbed some coffee and cookies and set out to look for a brightly-lit space. We walked to one MWR facility that was cleaning up after a sparsely-attended Air Force birthday party. There was no space available there, and someone pointed us to another MWR facility not too far away. Once there, we walked up a flight of stairs and into a recreation room. A group of soldiers played poker in the middle of the room while AFN news updates filled the silence. We moved past them and Mr. Johnson grabbed a folding seat and swung it in front of a worn-out, dusty leather chair. He gestured for me to sit in the folding chair and face over to the left while he sat to begin sketching. I sat down normally and he told me to hold that pose the best I could and he would start sketching.
Unfortunately, there was another soldier sitting about four feet in front of me, lounging in a chair and playing with his phone. The order to hold my position meant that I would be frozen, looking straight in that poor soldier’s direction. It was uncomfortable for me and I imagine it must have been worse for him, having some strange lieutenant stare directly at him unflinching. He lasted a good 20 or 25 minutes before finally getting up and walking away.
Mr. Johnson furiously sketched, aware that he was under a time limit. He finished the sketch with a total time of about 35 or 40 minutes. He showed it to me.
“Do you recognize him?”
I looked down and grinned widely, “Yeah, that’s great!”
We walked out of the MWR facility and spoke briefly about sketching and where we were both off to next. We shook hands and he promised to send me the sketch in a day or so, which he did.
Left: The fantastic sketch that Richard Johnson sent to me.
Right: After sharing it on Twitter, I was instantly corrected and put in the “correct” uniform.
Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.