MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau has chronicled the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a strip for years now. With characters like Ray Hightower and BD, the football coach and Vietnam vet, who went to Iraq with the National Guard. Trudeau's latest project involves real-life soldiers. It's called "Doonesbury.com's The Sandbox: Dispatches from Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."
For the last year, men and women fighting overseas posted stories about their lives on his Web site, soldiers like these.
Sergeant OWEN POWELL (U.S. Army, Retired): My name is Owen Powell. I write under the pen name Sergeant Roy Batty.
First Sergeant TROY STEWARD (U.S. Army): My name is Troy Steward. I am from Buffalo, New York. And I serve as a first sergeant in the New York Army National Guard.
NORRIS: Former Army Sergeant Powell reads from his blog entry titled "The Keep."
Sgt. POWELL: (Reading) Leaving fire in the middle of a dark night is always hypnotic. But when you add the bullet-scarred concrete looming overhead and the stark, empty faces of the tactical vehicles clustered around, the effect is even more powerful. Nothing quite says apocalypse with the same intensity and a mingled taste of burnt plastic and tobacco in your mouth can't help but add an extra dimension to one cinematic memories of combat hell born of Francis Ford Coppola and Joseph Conrad.
NORRIS: And for Sergeant Troy Steward read from his post titled "Lost Innocence."
Sgt. STEWARD: (Reading) I'm not a cold-hearted killer, but I'm a soldier. The only way a soldier makes it through places and events that we must walk through is to remove the emotion and spirit from the people that are around us. It is easy with adults - actually very easy. But with kids, it is not. When you hear a little boy laugh or girl giggle, you're reminded of the innocence these kids deserve, but we'll never realize. They're destined to life one-tenth of which would drive a kid in our country to years of Prozac and therapy. It makes the kids hard mentally. They are not allowed to enjoy being kids.
NORRIS: We caught up with the cartoonist Gary Trudeau when he was at the Pentagon with those soldiers this week, signing copies of the book.
Mr. GARY TRUDEAU (Cartoonist, Doonesbury; Author; "Doonesbury.com's The Sandbox: Dispatches from Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan"): Well, what we asked the soldiers to provide us was something that spoke to the kind of texture of quotidian day-to-day activities of what their life was, not rants about the war, not the politics of the war, not anything that would make the site particularly controversial, but that would give a general, broad general audience a flavor of what life was like.
NORRIS: Now, I was struck by the gallous humor in those, whether they're describing, you know, having a bomb roll across the road, literally on a roller skate right in front of you…
Mr. TRUDEAU: Yeah.
NORRIS: …or you know, dealing with the sound of incoming every day, all day.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Yeah. The humor is dark as you might expect and that kind of black, mesh-like humor is traditionally been kind of the thin membrane between these guys and insanity. They have to look at horrible things and somehow detoxify them, and often they'll do that with humor.
NORRIS: How did your views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan change or evolve in the course of working on this?
Mr. TRUDEAU: I'm not so sure my views evolved as they deepened. I just felt I had a richer understanding of what life was like for them. Now I've never been to Iraq, so, you know, for me this is just invaluable. I don't have any of my own experiences to draw on. But then again, I'm not doing traditional reporting.
NORRIS: But you are recording the war in your own way through your strip. I mean, you do write dialogue, and I'm wondering if the voice of the dialogue has changed at all in your script in the course of working on this. This Ray Hightower, has he evolved?
Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, of course, I think all the characters have - and the degree to which these individual voices had an impact on his, I can't say. It's not that self-conscious a process. But certainly, I think of all the characters, B.D. has probably evolved the most.
Readers will tell me that what most should come up about B.D. losing his leg - remember this is the oldest character the strip was built around. It was a sports strip about a football player originally. And so this character has been around for 39 years.
And I think what most moved readers when they saw that final panel with him missing his leg was not the absence of his leg, but the absence of the helmet on his head, which should always been in place. That that somehow conveyed a vulnerability, a sense that life had changed forever.
NORRIS: Was that a sort of conscious decision for you? Or did that happen almost spontaneously when you were drawing that panel?
Mr. TRUDEAU: Personally, nothing is a conscious decision for me. I'm always on a deadline.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TRUDEAU: And it's whatever I can throw together at the last minute. And, you know, once I'd removed his helmet, I had the decision to make about what that would reveal - what his hair would look like. Believe it or not, after almost four decades, I'd never given that a second of thought. So I thought, well, so at the heat of the battle, his head, you know, he's covered with sweat and blood, so I'll just throw in a scroll and work out what the hair looks like later.
But I had no idea where I was going with this storyline. I got about three days into it, and I heard from the Pentagon, and they said, well, it looks like you're in for a long run with this. Given the nature of his injuries, how can we help? And so I just came down to Washington and started going to Walter Reed and started building the story from that.
NORRIS: The book, "The Sandbox," how do you think it will be viewed over time?
Mr. TRUDEAU: I'm just kind of concerned at how it'd be viewed today.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. TRUDEAU: I don't hit for the bleachers, you know, I'm just trying to get on base. And I just hope these guys get the credit that's due to them. And that if it also helps people understand what these guys are going through on a day-to-day basis, I think that that would've made a contribution.
NORRIS: Garry Trudeau, thanks for talking to us.
Mr. TRUDEAU: Oh, my great pleasure.
NORRIS: All the best to you.
That was Garry Trudeau, talking to us from the Pentagon about the book "Doonesbury.com's The Sandbox: Dispatches From Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan." To hear the full readings from service members Owen Powell and Troy Steward, go to our Web site, npr.org
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