Cartoonist Chronicles Iraq Odyssey in Base Newspaper


Army Master Sgt. Steve Opet finds humor in war.

He finds it in hardship endured by his comrades. He sees it in the stringent rules that dictate a soldier’s life in Iraq. He hears it in conversations between officers and enlisted personnel.

And for nearly 15 months, he has chronicled all of it in “Opet’s Odyssey” ? cartoons that lampoon the sometimes humorous, sometimes inane side of military life in Iraq.

“Let’s face it, I’m in the Army,” Opet, 54, of Weirton, W.Va., said during a recent interview from this sprawling base on the outskirts of Baghdad. “And sometimes, funny stuff happens.”

Since the war in Iraq began in 2003, there have been a number of soldiers who have chronicled their experiences in cartoon.

But few appear to have become as popular as Opet, whose work is published online and in “The Mountain View” base newspaper, or earned a following of comrades. Copies of “Opet’s Odyssey” can be found hanging on computer monitors and, in some cases, latrines around Iraq.

Some of the cartoons are inspired by what he’s seen. Others, he said, are based on things he’s heard.

Opet, an Army Reserve soldier with the 354th Military Public Affairs unit attached to the 10th Mountain Division, has found inspiration for some of his work from the late Bill Mauldin, who became the voice of the World War II infantry soldier with his characters Willie and Joe.

From 1940-45, Mauldin drew the two disheveled riflemen who lampooned the military for Stars and Stripes and other military journals. Mauldin also fought alongside soldiers, earning their respect as one of their own.

In one of his first cartoons in Iraq, Opet paid tribute to a memorable Mauldin cartoon that featured a sergeant shooting a jeep with a broken axle, a mishap that bedeviled many a soldier during WWII. In Opet’s updated version the sergeant, drawn to near likeness, is shooting a computer that reads “access denied.”

“A lot of my younger soldiers, they don’t know who Bill Mauldin is. But they find it humorous,” Opet said. “But the older guys, those who remember his cartoons, they get it.”

The computer cartoon earned Opet the moniker of the “Bill Mauldin of Iraq.”

“We get so caught up in the mission. ‘Opet’s Odyssey’ provides some welcomed humor about the day-to-day life we experience in Iraq,” said Maj. Dan Elliott, who works with Opet.

Opet said he has long admired Mauldin but that parodies in “Mad” magazine were more of an influence.

Among the characters he has consistently used is “Sgt. Rock,” whose weathered features and bald head are reminiscent of Opet himself.

1st Lt. Kevin Skindell was newly married when he arrived in Iraq and dropped his wedding ring down a port-a-potty.

“Sgt. Rock sez true love is when you drop your wedding band down the port-a-john and don’t leave until you find it,” reads the cartoon, which features a soldier reaching into the toilet.

“Yes, it happened,” said Skindell, 27, of Erie, Pa., adding that his wife had even heard the story. “I’m probably never going to hear the end of it.”

But more often than not, the Sgt. Rock series warns against potentially deadly mistakes. The first Sgt. Rock cartoon came after one of Opet’s new soldiers suffered severe electrical burns while attempting to plug American electronics into an Iraqi outlet.

Opet began drawing as a child and later developed his skills with a degree at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

Newly married at the time, there was little work for an artist. So Opet went to work at Weirton Steel Corp. in 1976 and retired in 2004. He joined the Army Reserve because of a long family military tradition.

Always, though, he said he found time to draw.

That changed in June 2006, while training at Fort Hood, Texas, when his wife, Pegeen, died of a heart attack in her sleep.

“I didn’t draw for about five months. I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” he said.

His breakthrough came that Christmas when he drew a cartoon Christmas card that featured him walking their dog in the snow and looking up at the clouds, where his wife lay sprinkling the snow on them.

Opet began chronicling military life in cartoons when he was sent to Kosovo, though many of those focused on life outside the base.

In Iraq, he has avoided drawing cartoons that poke fun at Iraqis, politics or religion.

But occasionally, a cartoon has caused a stir.

Opet recently drew a cartoon that looked at the problem of people, primarily contractors, violating a policy at a dining facility that prohibits anybody from taking more than two to-go orders at a time. The cartoon featured a character holding two stacks of boxes and flags of various U.S. coalition partners, including Tonga.

Unbeknownst to Opet, Tongan soldiers were among the few allowed to violate the ban because their entire unit would be working while the dining facility was open. The Tongans would send a couple of people to get food for the entire unit.

Opet said he was told a ranking officer asked to have the cartoon pulled and an apology issued to the Tongans ? a step that was never taken.

With only days left before he returns to West Virginia, open boxes filled with colored pens sit underneath the desk where he has been toying with various farewell panels. He said he hasn’t come up with an idea yet.

When Opet leaves, he said he’ll return to life as a “serious artist” ? a life where he previously won juried shows for his pen and ink portraits.

“I’ll always have my characters, whether they are civilian or military,” he said. “I take them with me everywhere I go.”

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