Soldiers Sound Off with Latrine Graffiti While on assignment in Afghanistan, Steve Featherstone began taking pictures of latrine walls at an airbase in Kuwait, not far from the border with Iraq. The images, he says, are a rare glimpse into the minds of U.S. soldiers.

Soldiers Sound Off with Latrine Graffiti

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So, Babak Dehghanpisheh, who we just heard from, no doubt has spent a lot of time on military bases waiting around, that's what happens when you go on military embeds in Iraq or Afghanistan. You get stuck places, sometimes for a long time, for days on end. And when that happens, you start to look around, and you look for stories where you're stuck, and you end up looking really, really closely at your surroundings. That's what happened to our next guest.

Photographer Steve Featherstone, he got stuck at a military holding base where soldiers come in and out of and he ended up photographing graffiti found on the walls of the military latrines. And he meditated on this message that these soldiers were trying to put out, in trying to put a picture of who these people are, and what was going through their head when they wrote these messages. He was traveling to Afghanistan on assignment for Harper's Magazine, and that's where it all happened. He joins me now on the line. Hi, Steve.

Mr. STEVE FEATHERSTONE (Photographer, Harper's Magazine): Hi. Good morning.

STEWART: Good morning. So you were on assignment for Harper's. You were traveling to Afghanistan, but you stopped off. You were in Kuwait at Camp Ali Al Salem, an airbase not far from the border with Iraq. What was the first thing that you saw on a wall in one of these latrines that really jumped out to you and made you say, hey, I've got to capture this some way?

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: Well, I think it first was the Chuck Norris jokes. I don't know how much your audience, and probably a pretty young audience is aware of these, it's sort of a genre jokes, but they're kind of like a Zen koan. They star Chuck Norris, and he's usually doing something outrageous or impossible.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: One of my favorites was Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door. And I saw that on a wall and I thought that was hilarious. And so, I would find myself going from stall to stall to try to find new ones, and I would share them with my colleagues who were soldiers. And it sort of was a contest. We'd try to find, you know, the next best one. But as I was doing this, you know, I started to take a look at the other graffiti that was there.

And you know, a lot of it is just sort of profane, you know, back talking and whatnot, but there was some really - I started to pick up on themes like I suppose one of the most relevant ones was, soldiers seem to be really, really tired and enervated, and upset and angry with the extension policy that had just kicked in the previous spring in April.

STEWART: What were some of the - without, and a lot of these are vulgar. We have to say there's, as you might imagine...

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: All of them are vulgar.

STEWART: It is graffiti, but what can you tell us, what were some examples of some of those messages that indicated that kind of fatigue?

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: I think probably one of the most iconic, and I say "iconic" and it's not like a lot of people have seen these, but one of the ones that probably captures the essence of them all is a very simple - and I saw different variations it, is a very simple two-word joke. It just says "reenlistment papers." And then usually they write it over the spot where the toilet paper dispenser is and they draw arrows to the toilet paper dispenser, and it says "reenlistment papers." And there's lots of variations on that.

Maybe three or four that I saw, just within, you know, the one base. And I saw different variations when I got to Afghanistan, where it's a little different, because the graffiti was written on port-a-potty walls - it's a whole different medium. You know, they don't have toilet paper dispensers really. You're usually just sitting on top of some gross shelf. But you know, in the proper latrines in Ali Al Salem in Kuwait, that was probably the most - I guess the most common one that sort of encapsulates the entire sort of feel.

STEWART: Now, when I first heard about this and your work, I thought that's really interesting, especially because it happened in this particular base in Kuwait in this place of transit. It's like a no man's land. Because if you go other military bases where there's a more permanent presence, you don't find that kind of graffiti. You'd get in trouble if you do that.

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

STEWART: So this is like this secret place where people could vent and then leave and they wouldn't get in trouble.

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: Absolutely, yeah, and I think that's really important to understand, and I didn't understand it until I got to my final destination in Khost, Afghanistan, which is, you know, a forward operating base right near the Pakistan border and it belonged to one unit and that was the 82nd Airborne's fourth brigade combat team. And I was there for a couple of weeks. I didn't see a single piece of graffiti in any of those bathrooms.

And it was so different than those transitional bases where you have soldiers maybe coming out of combat, going to R&R, or worse, maybe guys who have already done one or two tours. Now it's common that - you have a lot of our soldiers that are on their third tour. They're coming back from a second tour, and they are just really tired of everything, and you know, they're laying it out there on these walls.

STEWART: But were there people - what were some of the reactions to that? Because conversations would start. People would then comment on these messages.

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: Yeah, you know, that really surprised me, it's how - I guess unsympathetic most other soldiers seemed. Now, I'm not saying are, because I don't know. These are people that are just writing stuff on walls. I'm not saying this is their authentic voice somehow or something like that, but what I did see was - I'll give you an example was this one that really stands out in my mind

Because you have a lot of people, they say, you know, "F the president," "Screw this extension policy," and you know, they vent that way. And most of the time, you get other people, the other soldiers would immediately sort of start up a graffiti conversation drawing little arrows to the original complaint saying, screw you, why'd you join? You're a big - you know, this and that.

You just can't imagine the names that they call each other, but they all must be tired of it. Now the one that really stood out to me was there was one guy had just written three simple lines. It just said something along the lines of, I've lost 20 good men in the past couple of weeks, you know, ten guys killed-in-action, another ten guys wounded-in-action. God bless you guys, that's all it said. And you know, it didn't make a plea for sympathy. It was very simple.

And the two arrows that, at least, I captured in the picture, there were others, the one said they should have worn their "eye-pro," meaning their eye protection or goggles, which obviously is, you know, a real glib response, to you know, a pretty serious, you know, call for - I don't know what the guy was asking for when he wrote the original message on there, and the other guy said they should have trained harder.

The soldiers that died should have trained harder. That really surprised me, you know, because the guy wasn't asking for anything. He wasn't asking to get out of the Army. He wasn't saying screw the president. He just said, you know, God bless the guys that were killed, and these other guys couldn't resist from sort of taking the air out of it.

STEWART: Well, we're going to put some of the photos on our website. There's really a lot in there to absorb. You can kind of get lost in them, and there's some really interesting images. Steve Featherstone, a photographer and contributor to Harper's Magazine. Hey. Thanks, Steve, very much. We appreciate you being here.

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: Hey, thanks for having me. It was fun.

STEWART: Take care. Coming up on the Bryant Park Project, are more computer screens good for you? Maybe, but only to a certain point. A new study will explain. And a sportscaster who used stuffed animals and dolls to recreate the NCAA games. Yes, he did have a good reason to do that. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. He says he has a good reason, anyway.

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