Cartoonists travel the world with the USO, drawing for troops

SUNNYSIDE, Queens (WABC) -- Since World War II, the non-profit United Service Organizations, better known as the USO, has brought entertainment to our troops serving overseas. Some of the world's most famous entertainers have participated, but you may not know that cartoonists have also been enlisted.

At New York Comic Con, there was a man who has traveled the world for the USO, easel in hand and pencil at the ready.

He's one of a group of guys who don't sing or dance, nor are they famous outside of their specialty - which is drawing cartoons.

"It's kinda like watching magic trick," Queens resident Ed Steckley said.

Sunnyside is a long way from Kandahar, yet Steckley has been there and back, traveling in military airplanes to Afghanistan, Iraq, and half a dozen other war zones.
"We'll just draw a crowd, literally," he joked.

Steckley is a cartoonist by trade who entertains the troops by drawing caricatures of them alongside his peers.

"We'll go to a USO tent, and there will be tables lined up with all of our names," he said. "And people will line up, and one by one, we'll just do their drawings of whoever's next in line."

Steckley makes his living as a commercial illustrator, and you may have seen his work in "Mad" magazine, of which he's been a longtime contributor.

"I sit at home in my little studio, and I draw pictures all day long," he said. "Meanwhile, there are people out in the war zones defending our country and our freedom, and that helps put my life in perspective."

Artists first went to the front line in World War II and found much camaraderie among themselves. They came home to start the National Cartoonists Society, so entertaining troops in this way is part of a long tradition. But Steckley makes clear the benefits are widespread.

"We get more out of it than they do," he said.

Closer to home, Steckley and his colleagues visit military hospitals like Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

"The soldiers that that are injured in these hospitals, generally they want to talk about what happened, so I'll just sit and listen (and draw)," Steckley said. "What we're looking for is what makes that person different from everybody else."

Watching him draw me in less than five minutes using a portable easel that's been to battle made me appreciate the unique drawings of Steckley and his buddies. He explains that those caricatures are "always done with love, and we just do the best we can."

Every drawing is given away, and if the children of servicemen and women get their own picture if time permits. The cartoonists draw in the dark of night and during the heat of the day, but like Steckley said, it's hard to tell who benefits more, the artists or their grateful subjects.

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