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Doonesbury Creator, Military Bloggers Compile New Book

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 18, 2007 – War can inspire great writing, like the series of superlative dispatches from servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan compiled in a new book that offers an arresting glimpse of life on the front lines.

Conceived by Garry Trudeau, creator of the long-running, satirical comic strip Doonesbury, “The Sandbox” is a 309-page compilation of roughly 90 online journal entries penned by scores of the military’s most talented scribes.

“In fascinating and compelling posts, soldiers write passionately, eloquently and movingly of their day-to-day lives, of their mission, and of the drama that unfolds daily around them,” Trudeau said during an interview at the Pentagon yesterday.

“In the military they call it ‘hotwash,’ I understand; this kind of downloading, debriefing of experiences right after they happen,” he said. “It’s the kind of first-person journalism that you really can’t find anyplace else.”

Thousands of military bloggers, or milbloggers, in Afghanistan and Iraq use the Internet to tell an unfiltered version of war, sharing stories of compassion, hope, anguish and suspense to primarily niche audiences of family members and friends. Trudeau, who said he began reading milblogs as a source of inspiration and information at the wars’ outset, decided last year to help the authors tap into a wider readership.

“I have a Web site -- doonesebury.com -- that does have a fairly broad reach,” he said, “and so we thought maybe this would be a good place to set up an aggregate site, a site that compiles the very best of what we could find of the milblogs.”

In October 2006, Trudeau and editor David Stanford, duty officer at the Doonesbury Web site, began hosting milblogs online. To draw attention to the nascent site, Trudeau used cammie-clad Doonesbury character Ray Hightower -- apparently an Army noncommissioned officer of undisclosed rank -- to spread the message via word-of-mouth.

“At The Sandbox, contributors can operate in a clean, lightly edited debriefing environment where all content, no matter how robust, is secured by the first amendment!” reads the text next to Hightower’s helmet-covered head in the Oct. 8, 2006, Doonesbury strip. To lure comic-strip readers to the new site Hightower adds, “So if you support the troops -- but haven’t a clue what they’re actually up to -- you owe it to yourself to log onto The Sandbox!”

Meanwhile, Stanford scoured the Internet in search of compelling milblogs. The editor also opened the Doonesbury Web site to submissions, resulting in an encouraging response of surprising quality and depth.

“I figured people maybe wouldn’t have enough time to write, and maybe they’d be writing a brief piece here, a quick report there,” he recalled. “But we were getting 2,000-, 3,000-word posts from people who would be out on a 15-hour mission and then just sit down and write a beautiful account of the entire thing with style.”

Milblogger 1st Sgt. Troy Steward of the New York National Guard regrets the empty pages of the journal he sparsely kept during the first Persian Gulf War.

“It was 16 or 17 years ago, and there’s a lot I’ve forgotten,” he said during an interview yesterday.

When Steward deployed to Afghanistan in May 2006, he resolved to discipline himself as a writer. Over the course of his year-long deployment, the first sergeant maintained his bouhammer.com milblog, which attracted a readership of unexpectedly high volume.

“As people around America starting reading it, my readership of 200-300 hits per day was 70 percent people I’d never met,” he recalled. “So many e-mails I received were from people that had family members -- sons, brothers, husbands, whatever -- deployed to Afghanistan that they hardly ever heard from. They would write me and say, ‘Your blog gives me an idea of what they’re going through. It gets me in touch with what they’re going through.’”

Steward said many of his readers were Americans interested in but deprived of traditional media coverage about Operation Enduring Freedom. The war in Afghanistan, which “does not grab the headlines anymore,” often is referred to by servicemembers deployed there as “the forgotten war,” Steward said.

“In fact, when I came back on leave, people didn’t even know we were still in Afghanistan,” he said with an incredulous tone. “And that’s amazing.

“Many people were just concerned citizens, great Americans that wanted to know what was going on and what servicemembers were going through,” he continued. “It gave them a small glimpse into what life was like over there.”

Three of Steward’s posts appear in The Sandbox, including a dispatch titled “Lost Innocence,” an account about an Afghan boy Steward met while on patrol near Sharana, Afghanistan.

“I wrote about a young boy -- probably about 10 years old -- that watched his father, who worked for the government, get murdered right in front of him very violently by enemy forces,” he said. “No one in the village would go to the funeral, because they didn’t want to be associated with helping out a member of the government.

“He and his mother and his siblings had to drag his father’s body, dig the hole and bury him. So I wrote about how a 10-year-old boy will never have a chance to be a child,” Steward said. “His innocence is lost forever.”

Milblogger Army Sgt. Owen Powell became a regular contributor to the Doonesbury Web site while deployed in Iraq from June 2006 to July 2007. Seven posts by Powell, who blogs under the nom de guerre “Roy Batty,” appear in The Sandbox compilation.

During an interview yesterday, the sergeant laughed when asked about the meaning behind his pseudonym, a homage to a character from the film “Bladerunner.” “There’s an awesome line at the end of the movie where it says, ‘I have seen things that you people wouldn’t believe.’ And for me that resonated even when I was a kid, and as a soldier it really resonated.

“I wanted to just capture, ‘What did it feel like to walk in the desert in Kuwait at night? What did it feel like to drive a Humvee through the mahalas (neighborhoods) of Baghdad? What did it feel like to get shot at or hit with an improvised explosive device?’” Powell said about his blog. “I was trying to bring out these images and these feelings and the visceral experience of being in Iraq.”

Proceeds from The Sandbox, Trudeau’s third in a series of military-related books, will be donated to the Fisher House Foundation. Located on the grounds of military and veterans hospitals, Fisher Houses offer a setting where family members can be close to loved ones hospitalized for an injury, illness or disease.

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