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How ‘Doonesbury’ serves the troops

By GARRY TRUDEAU | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 16, 2008

It’s always been a great source of pride to me that Stars and Stripes first subscribed to "Doonesbury" during the height of the Vietnam War. As the strip was unambiguously anti-war in outlook, it was a counterintuitive move on the part of the editors, and there were several campaigns to dump it. Fortunately, there was always a noisy cadre of readers who stood ready to support it, and the strip somehow survived.

Through the years that followed, there’ve been occasional skirmishes in the letters section on the issue of the strip’s continuing presence in the paper. I’ve seen some of those letters and, while they were often tough, I can be pretty tough on people myself, so I was hardly in a position to take offense.

Lately, however, I’ve been struck by the unusually harsh tone taken by some of your writers. I can only guess that they are either occasional readers who have no context for judging the strip, or that they simply can’t get past my open opposition to the war in Iraq. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their belief that I am "anti-military," but it’s possible that what follows may make their eyes spin:

Since I was first invited to visit with troops in Kuwait in 1991 (following an in-theater exhibit of my work that toured regional bases), I have talked with hundreds of military personnel. During my visit, I received Certificates of Achievement from both the 4th Battalion 67th Armor ("For significant contributions to the morale of the United States Forces") and the Ready First Brigade ("For providing aid and comfort to the United States Forces"). More recently, I have toured military hospitals from Landstuhl to Walter Reed to Brooke, and VA hospitals and Vet Centers from Kansas City to Palo Alto, interviewing scores of wounded warriors about their experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and military sexual trauma (MST). I have written hundreds of strips on those topics, gathering them into two books (all profits benefiting Fisher House) with introductions by Sen. John McCain and Gen. Richard B. Myers.

I also maintain and edit a milblog called The Sandbox at doonesbury.com to which scores of active-duty military personnel contribute on a regular basis. A collection of their work was recently published, again to benefit Fisher House. In recognition of the strip, I’ve been honored to receive the Commander’s Award for Public Service by the Department of the Army, the Commander’s Award from Disabled American Veterans, the President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts from Vietnam Veterans of America, the Distinguished Public Service Award from the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and a special citation from the Vet Centers.

In listing the above, I hope I haven’t created too much confusion in my critics. I also hope they don’t view my pride as hubris. I am humbled by the service and the sacrifice of the many friends I have made in the military. I see my contributions to country as minor compared to theirs, and am deeply grateful for all the help I’ve received in trying to understand and illuminate the various challenges our warriors face in the line of duty. But I also think I’ve made a good-faith effort in trying to understand military culture and portray it sympathetically and usefully to the general public.

Regular readers know that politics only occasionally intrude on my soldier stories, and that may explain the cognitive dissonance I seemed to have created in some quarters. Yes, it is possible to hate the war and love the warrior at the same time. My opposition to the war in Iraq is well-known, but so was my support for the first Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan. I’m a citizen of an open democracy, and free to judge for myself which wars I think are wise and just and which are not.

I recognize, of course, that the troops who fight those wars have no choice, but I can also tell you from doing three book-signings at the Pentagon that support for Operation Iraqi Freedom is by no means strong throughout the ranks. Indeed, many of the officers I’ve met there are heartsick at the systemic damage an ill-advised war has inflicted on our military institutions.

My point is not to argue whether this war should have been waged. However, the majority of the American people turned against it long ago and have disengaged, which makes efforts in the journalistic community to keep the focus on military and veteran issues all the more pressing. I have tried to play a small, constructive role in that undertaking, and fervently hope that whatever my shortcomings, readers of Stars and Stripes will continue to give the strip a fair reading.

Garry Trudeau created "Doonesbury" in 1970.