28 September 2012

See You in the Funny Papers!

Editor's note: The following is the final installment of this week's Red Bull Rising mini-series, "Comic Book Re: Insurgency." For more insights and information about telling war stories using graphic-novel techniques, see also Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Comic books matter. So do cartoons.

For more than 100 years—ending only after budget cuts and layoffs in 2008—the Des Moines (Iowa) Register ran an editorial cartoon on its front page. After budget cuts and layoffs, Brian Duffy was the last of a line that included Pulitzer Prize-winners Ding Darling and Frank Miller. Duffy still plies his trade on television, in the local free weekly paper, and online.

I was sorry to see that tradition die in the Register. To outsiders, it seemed as quirky as deep-fried butter on a stick at the Iowa State Fair. To those of us who live here, it was as natural as a landscape planted out in corn and soybeans, as far as the eye can see. Which is to say, of course, that it wasn't natural at all. But it was homegrown, part of the landscape. Nobody could take it away from us, until they did.

Budget cuts and technology can really take the fun out of things sometimes.

I've written previously about how Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury has been something of a personal talisman. Through his daily comic strip, Trudeau delivers some of the most insightful, accessible observations of military and veteran life in mass media today. He also supports mil-blogging as a craft. For the record, Trudeau won a Pulitzer in 1975. I hadn't realized Pulitzers would become something of a theme here.

There's a long line of cartoon soldiers that precede those Doonesbury characters, including Private Snafu, Sad Sack, Beetle Bailey, and Willie and Joe. The latter cartoon was drawn by Bill Mauldin, a citizen-soldier-cartoonist with Oklahoma's 45th Infantry "Thunderbird" Division, and winner of two Pulitzers himself.

Of more recent vintage, there's also "Delta Bravo Sierra", "Bob on the FOB", and "PVT Murphy" (the latter, sadly, no longer in production).

For my money and daily eyeball time, however, I visit most regularly a group of space mercenaries, a rudely drawn slideshow circus, and a stick-figure superhero who fights for life, liberty, and pursuit of doctrine. Because they're "free," I try to occasionally send them money by purchasing their merchandise, and by supporting their charities and causes.

As I have before, I'll include science-fiction writer Howard Tayler's "Schlock Mercenary" in this military-cartoon company. There's a reason that his "Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries" is posted on many a TOC wall. You can read his stuff and buy his books here.

Power Point Ranger has recently made some 600 of his scathing and snarky slides available on CD-ROM for just $12, including shipping and handling. Like they say: "Suitable for framing." By which, I mean "sneaking into your buddy's next briefing slide deck."

Finally, from the secret lair, poker den, and humidor-arsenal of Doctrine Man!!, the latest piece of inspired swag is a Blue Falcon sticker. Think of it as a "kick me" sign for that special someone around the staff tent.

Comic books matter. So do cartoons. Send them money when you can.

Otherwise, you might one day wake up to a blank page in your newspaper, or a broken URL on your computer. To mis-quote Sherpatude No. 26: "Humor is a combat multiplier. Except when it isn't ... there."


As a final note in wrapping up this week's Red Bull Rising focus on comic books and cartoons, theorist Scott McCloud, author of such books as "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art" and "Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels", is speaking in Red Bull country tonight in Northfield, Minn.

He's helping Carleton College kick off its “Visual Learning: Transforming the Liberal Arts” conference, which will "bring together leaders from 42 esteemed institutions around the nation—academics representing a variety of disciplines, as well as graduate students, museum curators, photographers, photojournalists, graphic artists, film-makers, technologists, and musicians."

Click here for details.

27 September 2012

A Post-Mortem on Two Comic Book Series

Editor's note: The following is Part IV of this week's Red Bull Rising mini-series "Comic Book Re: Insurgency." For more insights and information about telling war stories using graphic-novel techniques, see also Part I, Part IIPart III, and Part V.

After a incomplete study of DC Comics' 21st century "Men of War" and "G.I. Combat" updates—each of which was cancelled after runs of less than 12 monthly issues—I'm prepared to make a few "lessons learned" diagnoses.

Each title featured one serialized story and one standalone story in each issue. The writers of "Men of War" sought to update the World War II character of Sgt. Rock by recruiting his nephew into a modern-day suicide squad. Despite the clandestine nature of its missions, the squad was still clearly in the military. Modern-day uniforms and real-world weapons. Not a ray gun or killer robot in sight.

That's not to say that strange things were not afoot. Sgt. Rock and his team would occasionally encounter mysterious people on the battlefield. They might have been friendlies, allies, or potential targets. Also, one of the members may have had superpowers. The figuring it all out was the fun part. Or, it would've been, had the series not been cancelled.

Much of the writing was notably internal monologue. In other words, readers were inside Sgt. Rock's head. In real-time. This is an important technique in war comics. Otherwise, war-comic characters would have to spout running commentaries on their intentions and actions. Imagine: "I'm firing my weapon!" or "I'm shooting at you!" It just sounds a little silly, when the rest of your action seems based in reality.

Whether or not the new Sgt. Rock existed in the same storied universe as Superman, Batman, and the like is uncertain. The inclusion of superhuman or mystical entities actually could've worked. Television programs such as "Heroes" (2006-2010) and "Alphas" (2011-present) have successfully built on this question: What would happen if select "normal" humans started exhibiting strange powers?

Put that in the context of a small military unit, such as a U.S. Army squad, and I'm already popping the popcorn.

Still, "Men at War" apparently generated little heat on comics store racks.

Its replacement title, "G.I. Combat," also sought to reinvent, resurrect, or rejuvenate some long-established DC properties, including "The War that Time Forgot" and "The Unknown Solider."

The former storyline involved a group of U.S. soldiers who parachute into an electrical storm on the Korean Peninsula, only to find themselves in a land zoning hot with Great Lizard madness. Dinosaurs make for a lot of sizzle, but little steak. Once you've seen one knife fight with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or a machine-gun ambush of stampeding Brontosauruses, you've pretty much seen everything. There's also not a lot of ink or pages left over for character development.

I kept looking for some old guy to say: "Welcome, to Jurassic FOB!"

Having remembered the character from my comic-book collecting adolescence, I really wanted to like "The Unknown Soldier." The narrative follows the attempts of a soldier without identity, facially disfigured and psychologically shaky, to wreak havoc and revenge on his country's enemies. The 2012 title updated the character's ability to disguise himself using realistic but temporary mask technology, and gave him super strength, endurance, stamina, night vision, and healing ability. The Unknown Soldier, in other words, is Captain America, Wolverine, and Darkman, all wrapped up in the same bandages. Toss in some Mission: Impossible and Bourne-again memory loss for good measure.

Then, it got downright unrealistic.

In one mission, he is issued a Barrett .50-cal. sniper rifle with "silencer, computer software, and time-bomb rounds." In another, he digitally downloads the memories of a high-level terrorist. At one point, someone back at the TOC wants to push the self-destruct button on the "nuke" that has apparently been medically placed upon The Unknown Soldier's person.

The bottom line: Even if "Men of War" was perhaps too subtle for its own good—there is, after all, a fine line between building a slow reveal, and losing the reader to shiny objects—perhaps The Unknown Soldier was a bit too over-the-top.

I'm secretly glad that "Men of War" and "G.I. Combat" are finite. My recent research expedition into the local comic book shop triggered my old collector's obsessive-compulsive need to own every issue of something. Having a few holes in the stacks will give me something for which to search in passing, but not make the relationship among my resurgent hobby, my local retailer, and my wallet an open-ended and potentially abusive one.

That said, I picked up two issues of the new "Think Tank" series from Top Cow. It started out as a 4-issue limited series, but the company has announced that it will expand to 12 issues. The story involves a snarky young weapons designer who decides that he's tired of indirectly killing people. Imagine Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit, with a good dose of Dr. Gregory HouseDoctor Who, or maybe the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. There are drones and thought-readers and smart munitions. For people who like their mil-fiction with a little science, or their mil-science with a little fiction, this one is worth a trip to the comics store.

That, however, is another story, for another day.

Tomorrow: Our final (?) discussion of writers and artists who are successfully telling war stories through their own super projects. Stay tuned, True Believers!

26 September 2012

'Tilt-Shift' Comic Promises Front-Line Focus

Editor's note: The following is Part III of this week's Red Bull Rising mini-series "Comic Book Re: Insurgency." For more insights and information about telling war stories using graphic-novel techniques, see also Part IPart IIPart IV, and Part V.

"Introducing yourself as a combat cameraman (COMCAM) to the average soldier can draw many dismissive laughs, tilted heads and raised eyebrows," writes graphic novelist Jose Torres-Cooban, Glen Burnie, Md.

"Between the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) and the various Special Forces Groups, there are approximately 230 to 250 Soldiers in combat camera slots around the Active Army," he continues. "That is roughly .0004 percent of the Army's personnel strength or one COMCAM per every 2,250 soldiers. Needless to say, we aren’t common and though U.S. Army COMCAMs have been operating on battlefields since the Spanish-American War we are still very foreign to our contemporaries. [...]"

Along with a team of other artist-veterans, Torres-Cooban wants to share with readers the truths and experiences of American soldiers fighting on the front lines. That's why they're launching a 12-issue comic book series titled "Tilt-Shift Vol. 1: The Quiet Profession."

The pitch is a little breathless and bombastic, and maybe sounds a little like an over-adrenalized young soldier who's just heard the crack of first shots overhead. That doesn't make it any less effective, however. Or compelling. Check out this description, for example, taken from the artists' successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $10,000 toward the production of the premiere issue:
"Tilt-Shift" marries police procedural intrigue with hard-hitting modern warfare action in its hyper-real presentation of the work done by Special Operations teams throughout Afghanistan.

More than that, it paints a picture of young Americans rising from their varied upbringings, distinguishing themselves from among their peers and flying to the most desolate ends of the world to quell a violent insurgency that suppresses the freedom of the Afghan people and threatens the security of their families back home.
Breathless, yes. But also pretty attention-getting, too. Right on target.

Readers of the fictionalized narrative will follow embedded U.S. Army combat photographer Spc. Freddie Blythe, while he covers "Team Galahad" in adventures ranging from "fortified mountain strongholds in the North to [..] booby trap-filled bomb factories hidden among the grape orchards of Southern Afghanistan." According to fund-raising materials, the story is written by and based on the experiences of Special Operations combat veterans.

In addition to some real guts and genuine heart, there's some chewy artistic stuff in potential play, too. Take, for example, the explanation of the "Tilt-Shift" title itself:
The term "Tilt-Shift" refers to a type of photographic lens that allows for extremely selective focus. The effects are two-fold. When used on a large landscape, the forced perspective causes the objects photographed to appear as though they were miniatures. When used on shots of a crowd, an individual can be highlighted for dramatic effect. [...]

"Tilt-Shift" forces perspective on the large topic of the Global War on Terror by focusing on those fighting on the front lines. Also, by singling out the role of the combat photographer, the audience is given a guided tour of the modern battlefield through the eyes of a soldier tasked with documenting and cataloging the actions of this small group of elite soldiers.
As with other Kickstarter efforts, prospective donors are enticed to up their pledges with any number of geegaws and giveaways. Depending on how much you give, you might score a hat or a signed print or some cool postcards. Give more than $100, and you can lock in hardcopies and PDF files of all 12 issues. As a bonus, donors at all levels gain access to a bi-weekly newsletter that promises to be full of insights and information.

Because the project is now fully funded, the publishers promise that additional money will go toward production of future issues. The Kickstarter cycle ends this Fri., Sept. 28.

What are you waiting for?!


For a recent Comic Books and Movie Reviews.com interview with writer Torres-Cooban, click here.

For step-by-step snapshots of what it takes to bring a comic book to completion, check out this article, which follows a single page from Torres-Cooban's writing, Josh Hood's illustrations, Mikey Babinski's inks, and Mike Spicer's colors.

A Kickstarter video for the "Tilt-Shift" comic is available for viewing here.

A Facebook page for the "Tilt-Shift" comic can be found here.

Continuing this week: Stories of writers and artists who are successfully telling war stories through their own super projects. Stay tuned, True Believers!

25 September 2012

Studio Visually Tells Veterans' 'Untold Stories'

Editor's note: This is Part II of this week's Red Bull Rising mini-series "Comic Book Re: Insurgency." See also Part IPart III, Part IV, and Part V.

Clayton Murwin—sometimes called "The Hero Maker"—is the founder of Heroes Fallen Studios, Inc., Timberville, Va., a non-profit organization that publishes graphic novels that tell the stories of military service members and veterans in their own words.

In January 2011, Heroes Fallen Studios published the first issue of "Untold Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan," a 72-page black-and-white comic-book-style anthology that covered the range of military experience. In its pages, readers found honor and humor, glory and gore, service and sacrifice.

Murwin, who never served in uniform himself, has instead dedicated his life, energy, and talents to documenting the service of others. He is, for example, currently under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to produce a multi-volume set of visual stories, which will depict the experiences of Korean War veterans. Two books are planned for publication in 2013. The first book will focus on the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in 1950. The second book will depict the separate stories of four veterans.

"I get the chance to make sure that these Korean War veterans get to have their stories told in a very unique way, a way that will reach many more people in my opinion than they would if they had just been done as a novel," Murwin says.

Mil-blogger Scott Lee, an Operation Desert Storm veteran who writes "P.T.S.D.: A Soldier's Perspective," is assisting Murwin by conducting interviews with the veterans. "We get to be the conduit of their stories and record them forever in a medium that transcends generations," the former M3 "Bradley" driver says. "How cool is that?"

"The first interview was the most difficult with a Medal of Honor recipient, I was triggered severely throughout the interview and the writing process. Later, the conversation turned to how his war experience affected him. He told me that the first 20 years were bad, but after that it got better," Lee says. "After living with [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] for the last 21 years, it gave me hope. It allowed me to start to think of my war trauma in long term perspective where before I was unable to do so. Interviewing the veterans and the writing process has given me a cathartic blueprint to revisit my war trauma."

Says Murwin: "Scott stuck it out! I knew he could do it! That's why I wanted him to do the interviews. One, I knew the veterans would be more open to him as being a combat vet himself because of that 'older generation' code they live by. And I think it gave Scott a new outlook on life after war."

Readers can access a free, 13-page PDF sample of the first issue of "Untold Stories" here. The book retails for $10, and is available at the Heroes Fallen Studios web-store here. The site also offers T-shirts, prints, and other merchandise. A portion of proceeds are donated to non-profit organizations that support military survivors.

Murwin also volunteers with the Journal of Military Experience, a hybrid academic journal and literary magazine published on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University (E.K.U.), a veteran-friendly institution in Richmond, Ky. Red Bull Rising blog-readers may recognize the university as the site the Summer 2012 "Military Experience and the Arts Symposium."

In November 2013, the third issue of The Journal of Military Experience will incorporate Murwin's "Untold Stories Vol. 2." The organizations are exploring how the publication might be presented with two "front" covers, perhaps by flipping the issue over.

If all that isn't enough activity, Murwin also draws 11x17-inch pencil portraits on request for family members who have lost a loved one in service to their country, working from a photographs of not less than 200 dots per inch (D.P.I.).

Heroes Fallen Studios welcomes queries and submissions from soldiers and veterans who want to tell their stories, as well as veteran and non-veteran artists, writers, inkers, letterers, and marketing professionals who wish to contribute to the organization's efforts.

Find Heroes Fallen Studios, Inc. on Facebook here.

Find mil-blogger Scott Lee's "Combat PTSD Blogger" Facebook page here.

Continuing this week: Stories of writers and artists who are successfully telling war stories through their own super projects. Stay tuned, True Believers!

24 September 2012

Are War Comic Books a Dying Art?

Editor's note: This is Part I of the Red Bull Rising mini-series "Comic Book Re: Insurgency." See also Part IIPart III, Part IV,  and Part V.

My name is Sherpa ... ("Hi, Sherpa!") ... and I read comic books.

It has been approximately three days since I purchased my last comic book. Before that, I was on the wagon for a couple of decades, ever since I packed away my childish things in my parents' basement and drove off to school. Sure, maybe I purchased the occasional trade paperback reprints collecting a particular title into a single bound edition. And, when passing through the Post Exchange, I'd pick up the free Marvel-brand issues that celebrated Life, Liberty, and the AAFES Way. Just to keep a finger on the pulse of the old stories, to check in with some of the the old superhero gang.

From my aging position, it seemed like comic books were becoming less relevant to society, while also becoming more expensive and bloody. When I started actively collecting comics in the 1970s and '80s, DC and Marvel titles cost 40- or 50-cents. The specials cost maybe a dollar. Today, comics are printed with glorious inks on bright white papers—the newsprint of my youth is long gone—but they cost $2.99, $3.99, or more. That's for maybe 40 pages of visual content, with one-quarter of that being advertising and editorial filler.

There's a quip I've long-ago borrowed from a now-forgotten comedian: "I remember when comic books not only cost a dime, and they were also thicker than one."

I couldn't keep track of my own hobby: There were too many crossovers, too many titles, too many alter egos and altered realities. I resigned myself from comic book collecting when I finally figured out that it was an activity akin to watching soap operas or professional wrestling. The good guys might win, but only for a minute. The bad guys would turn good, the good guys would turn bad. Someone would occasionally die, only to be respawned or resurrected when the economic timing was right. "All this has happened before, all this will happen again."

In recent years, comics have moved from the newsstand to the movie theater, which is itself a market under siege. Despite the vagaries of making money in the movie business, there have been a few bright victories in the battle to capture eyeballs and dollars. For example, "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) was a spare and unsparing reflection on our collective post-September 11th mindset. And Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012) was a megaton-of-popcorn blockbuster, chockfull of themes of service and sacrifice.

Because superheroes are our modern-day mythologies, it makes sense that every generation might desire its own take on the basic narratives. Does every half-generation need its own version of Spider-man or Superman, however? Are we really better off with "The Amazing Spiderman" (2012) than we were just five years ago with "Spider-man 3" (2007)? At what point does it all just become a matter of churning and burning, rehashing and mashing-up?

All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.

I have a few combat-themed comics in my old stacks, but not many. I was mostly into DC and Marvel superheroes. Even in this, however, I was a bit of a contrarian collector. For example, I bought "Moon Knight" rather than the more multiple and popular titles involving Batman himself. (Think "Dark Knight with a bunch of Egyptian mythos mixed in.") I collected "Dazzler" comics, the story of a disco-era roller-skating mutant musician who was capable of converting sound waves into light.

Needless to say, I purchased the latter series with an increasing sense of irony. No one else would be crazy enough to buy these, I thought.

I made my first 21st century comic-book purchases in a similar spirit, with a similar strategy in mind. In 2011, DC Comics announced a complete story- and product-line reshuffle, which resulted in revising and culling that company's universe of characters down to 52 titles. Most of these "New 52" were superhero titles, but two were war titles: "Men at War" and "Blackhawks." The first was to be an modern-day update to the "Sgt. Rock" series of yesteryear, which had originally been set in World War II. The second was a similar update, regarding a band of flying mercenaries.

They were each cancelled after less than a year.

(The first six of eight issues of "Men at War" is available as a trade paperback collection titled "Men of War Vol. 1: Uneasy Company".)

As part of a "Second Wave" to its New 52 campaign, DC Comics then resurrected the "G.I. Combat" title, which included characters and stories such as "The Unknown Solider" and "The Haunted Tank." The latter originally involved the WWII adventures of an M3 "Stuart" tank crew, whose vehicle was inhabited by the spirit of Confederate States Army cavalry Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Earlier this month, however, DC Comics reportedly announced that the "Men at War" successor "G.I. Combat" would also be cancelled after the December 2012 issue, its seventh. "Basically," wagged one website, "the same comic has been cancelled twice."

Collect them all, trade with your friends. And stack them next to Dazzler.

After more than 10 years of global conflict in the real world—and two apparent war-comic Donnybrooks—you might come to the conclusion that readers just aren't interested in buying more war.

In that, however, you would be wrong.

Later this week: Stories of writers and artists who are successfully telling war stories through their own super projects. Stay tuned, True Believers!

20 September 2012

Sherpa Plays Show-and-Tell on Stage

Editor's note: This posted originally appeared as "Look, I Made a Hat!" on the Telling: Des Moines blog, where I'm chronicling a November 2012 production of The Telling Project in Central Iowa.

You can also follow "Telling: Des Moines" developments on Facebook here.

The cast of "Telling: Des Moines" continues to meet weekly on the Ankeny campus of Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), getting a feel for basic acting techniques, tricks, and terms, as well as each other. We're on our third week of rehearsals.

Meanwhile, our writer-producer (producer-writer?) Jonathan Wei is banging away at a script somewhere down in Texas, transcribing our initial interviews and weaving them together into a larger work. Many of us were interviewed back in January 2012. A few of us have even wondered aloud as to whether we're still the same people we were back then. It's funny, but not a joke. Life is a moving target. A few of us have encountered significant decisions and events since last winter.

We're looking forward to meeting our former selves, and hearing what we have to say.

I missed last week's rehearsal in order to attend a "military writers' conference" in Denver, Colo. Week No. 2's assignment had been to present an object to our fellow cast members, something connected to our respective military experiences. I was sorry to have missed the opportunity to participate in the show-and-tell exercise. Director Jennifer Fawcett allowed me to share my object at this week's rehearsal. Sort of make-up homework.

I chose my burnt-orange floppy hat from the Multinational Force and Observers (M.F.O.) mission in Sinai, Egypt. "I got my combat patch for peacekeeping duty," I like to say. Personnel serving on MFO duty—Fijians, Columbians, Hungarian, Kiwi, and more—wore the uniforms of their nations' respective militaries, but we all wore the same hat.

The military called it a "Stetson," but it doesn't look much like a cowboy hat. You can wear it like a cowboy, however, by shaping its brim. You can also shape it like a slouch hat, a jungle boonie hat, or like you're going on safari. You can look like Indiana Jones. You can look like The Man from Snowy River. You can even flip the front of your hat up to look like Larry Storch's character on that old "F Troop" comedy.

Our sergeant major didn't much care how we wore ours—this was in the days before color-coded Reflective Safety Belts and other garrison finery. How one chose to wear the hat became a matter of self-expression during our time in the desert.

The hats featured a flap of cloth that could be extended to shield one's neck from the sun. They also featured an adjustable chinstrap. Neither was ever used.

"It's a fishing hat!" Danielle says, after my show-and-tell.

I had never before thought of it that way.

Later in rehearsal, each of us worked on reading aloud an excerpt from a book or play, taken from a selection of monologues collected by the director. In keeping with the military theme, there were a few selections from David Finkel's "The Good Soldiers". There were some non-military selections, too. Jennette Walls' "Half Broke Horses" was one. I randomly selected an essay from David Sedaris' "Naked," which involved the author's show-business epiphany when a mime visited his high school.

Next week's assignment, coincidentally? Present to our fellow cast members an activity—something we do regularly—without vocalization or use of props.

Mime's the word!

17 September 2012

The Long-Haul Back from the Summit

This might feel a little bit like posting one of those haul videos to the Internet, but Sherpa returned from last week's Sangria Summit: A Military Writers' Conference in Denver, Colo. with a rucksack heavy with books, a notebook full of ideas, and a pocket stuffed with names, numbers, and e-mail addresses of new collaborators.

It was a top-shelf affair, conducted at Denver's Marriott City Center, with speakers and panels providing insights on researching, writing, publishing, and marketing military non-fiction and fiction. The inaugural session proved an intimate affair—about 50 authors, writers, journalists, agents, and others—ranging from as far away as British Columbia and the Empire State, to as near as already-in-the-neighborhood. There are, after all, plenty of military installations in central Colorado.

Speakers included Bob Mayer, a former Green Beret and author of more than 50 fiction and non-fiction books, who spoke on outlining, plot, conflict and point-of-view. Here's semi-automatic burst of sample titles to give you the scope of Mayer's expertise:
Mayer—along with business partner, technologist, and author Jen Talty—also runs the independent Cool Gus Publishing. They were a natural fit for one of the two panels I was invited to facilitate: "Asymmetrical Warfare: The World of E-Publishing." Also participating in that discussion was Mark Coker, chief executive officer for Smashwords. The Smashwords platform allows authors to easily convert word-processing files into e-reader formats other than Amazon's Kindle, and distribute them to the appropriate channels.

In a separate luncheon remarks, Coker delivered tips and techniques for e-publishing in clear, concrete "best-practices" language. Make sure to check out his free how-to e-books.

Still later in the 2-day event, author and literary agent Maryann Karinch similarly provided insights into the traditional book-pitch and -publishing models. On behalf of my readers, I've been looking for a book that describes how to analyze and present a book project. I'll likely add her "GamePlan for Getting Published" to the resources listed on the Red Bull Rising page "On Writing."

I also facilitated a panel titled "The Battle to Get Into Print" (I wish I could claim that I'd been the clever one to name these sessions), in which the writers of three fiction and non-fiction books described how they researched, wrote, published, and marketed their respective titles:
Between sessions there were some great targets of opportunity. With the same speed of soldiers conducting "I'm up, they see me, I'm down" combat-movement drills, a couple of authors popped up before breaks to introduce themselves and their books. I've previously mentioned meeting Antonio Salinas, who wrote a memoir called "Siren's Song: The Allure Of War." There was also Jesse C. Holder, a Georgia boy who wrote a memoir about his time in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The title? "Chutes, Beer, & Bullets: Not Your Grandpa's War Story."

The Power Point Ranger himself brought his six-shooters of snarkiness to bear a couple of times. During one of our first conversations, for example, I made the happy mistake of uttering a Midwesternism regarding the unwise practice of urination in the vicinity of electric fences. A few hours later, he had posted a web comic poking fun at a certain Red Bull soldier and city kid from Iowa.

Similarly, when speaker Maryann Karinch whimsically invited Power Point Ranger to say on stage during her remarks, she was rewarded with a cartoon he created during her hour-long presentation.

The comic was based on one of her anecdotes: The story goes that Karinich, who has more than 500 skydives to her credit, was once chatted up by an Airborne-qualified soldier with all of five jumps under his belt. After he realizes he's out of his depth, the soldier figuratively falls to the ground like a silk chute and slinks away.

"That's OK," quipped Power Point Ranger. "Paratroopers have been known to be prone to feelings of inadequacy."

At that, Holder, our paratrooper-author-in-residence, was heard to laugh loudest of all.


Disclaimer: My participation in Sangria Summit was underwritten by Victor Ian LLC, a military media and gaming business. The business publishes Lanterloon, an eclectic lifestyle, technology, and military blog; and has a physical storefront called "Dragons and Dragoons" located in Colorado Springs, Colo.

13 September 2012

Cheers from the Summit!

I hit the ground in Denver last night for the first Sangria Summit: A Military Writers' Conference. Even before the conference started, I'd engaged in multiple world-changing, mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting conversations.

I quickly posted to Facebook: "Send ammo ... and hyphens."

There are lots of people here from the Internet. We recognize each other, even if we've never met. I quickly lazed in on John Homes, creator of the lewd, crude, and nearly always on target "PowerPoint Ranger." If you're not familiar with the webcomic, think "Beatle Bailey" meets "South Park." He'd just pulled a cross-country convoy of one—New York to Colorado, immediately following a 4-day National Guard drill. Some people embrace the suck, others drive it.

The Denver Press Club, by the way, the scene of our mixer for early conference arrivals? Full of history, artifacts, and stories. An original Ralph Steadman print. Clubby caricatures on the walls. An old Rocky Mountain News newspaper box, repurposed as a boom-box stereo cabinet.

And, most importantly: An open bar. (Yes, our hosts ensured that sangria was available.)

There, I met Antonio Salinas. He's a U.S. Army officer currently stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., a former Marine, and author of a memoir of his time leading soldiers in the Pech River Valley of Kunar Province, Afghanistan. "I kept a journal," he says over beers. "I wrote my notes with the ringing of enemy rounds still in my ears." He wrote a memoir called "Siren's Song: The Allure Of War", and is working on a project based on his post-deployment struggles.

"Some people drink, some people do drugs, some people work out and lift weights," Salinas says. "I became a womanizer ... It's kind of memoir, kind of erotica."

"Fifty Shades of Olive Drab"? I'd buy that. So would a lot of other people.

I found another friendly face and voice, however, whom I had met previously: Ted Engelmann, an U.S. Air Force veteran, world-traveler, story-teller, and writer-photographer (pass the hyphens!) whom I'd first met at this past summer. We both attended the inaugural Military Experience and the Arts Symposium at Eastern Kentucky University. While continuing his research into how other cultures perceive the Vietnam War, he's also hatching plans to embed as media in Southern Afghanistan next year. Just goes to show you: "Big Army, small world."

Bonus: During a break this morning, Ted just handed me a copy of "Objects for Deployment," an experimental book he'd published in 2011 through the Veterans Book Project.

More news as it happens, and as I'm able to write. Send ammo and hyphens. After all, "before the gardens, must come the fighting."

And the sangria must flow.

11 September 2012

34th Inf. Div. Alumni to Meet for 65th Year

The 65th Annual meeting and reunion of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Infantry Division Association will be conducted Oct. 5-6, 2012, in the Des Moines, Iowa suburb of Johnston. Johnston is also home to the Iowa National Guard's Camp Dodge Joint Maneuver Training Center. Events will include tours of Camp Dodge sites, exhibits, and training facilities, as well as a memorial service, and buffet dinner.

Dinner speaker will be 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division Command Sgt. Major Joel M. Arnold, the top enlisted soldier in that Minnesota National Guard organization, and former command sergeant major of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Inf. Div. (2-34th BCT), which deployed to Eastern Afghanistan as "Task Force Red Bulls" from July 2010 to August 2011.

Arnold has also held previous assignments in the Iowa National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.) as battalion command sergeant major and as first sergeant, Bravo Company, 1-133rd Inf.

The event will once again be located at Stoney Creek Inn, 5291 Stoney Creek Court, Des Moines, IA 50131; Phone: 515.334.9000; 800.659.2220 (toll-free). Group rate: $84 plus tax.

For full details on this event, including membership and registration forms, see the Summer 2012 association newsletter here (PDF). Price for the event is $100; $50 for Saturday only.

Additionally, a Facebook page for the 2012 event is here.

Deadline for both conference and hotel registrations is Sat., Sept. 15.

A brief schedule of events (subject to change) follows:

Friday, Oct. 5
0800: Registration & hospitality rooms open
0900: "Gathering of the Red Bulls"

- Lunch at local restaurants, personal expense - 
1300: Tour of 34th Infantry Division Memorial and Gold Star Military Museum's 34th Infantry Division exhibit, Camp Dodge Joint Maneuver Training Center, 7105 NW 70th Ave., Johnston, Iowa 50131
1600: Ice cream social
1700: Social (open bar)
1800: Evening (heavy hors d'oeuvres)
Saturday, Oct. 6
0730: President's Breakfast (by invitation)
0800: Late registrations; hospitality room open
0900: Association business meeting
1100: Briefing on Afghanistan 2nd BCT Deployment

- Lunch at local restaurants, personal expense - 
1300: Tour of Camp Dodge weapons-training simulations center
1300: Special meeting for Afghan & Iraq Veterans
1700: Social (cash bar)
1800: 34th Inf. Div. Association Memorial Service, John Deere Room
34th Banquet. Guest speaker: Division Command Sgt. Major Joel Arnold, 34th Inf. Div.

10 September 2012

'Red Bull' Leaders Accept Unit Award

Pictured, left to right:
  • Col. Michael G. Amundson, current commander of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th "Red Bull" Infantry Division (2-34th BCT); former deputy commander of Task Force Red Bulls, deployed to Eastern Afghanistan 2010-2011.
  • Col. Benjamin J. Corell, former commander of 2-34th BCT and TF Red Bulls.
  • Lt. Gen. William E. Ingram, Jr., director, Army National Guard.
  • Lt. Col. Steven J. Kremer, current 2-34th BCT executive officer; former commander of 1st Battalion, 133rd Inf. Regiment (1-133rd Inf.), which deployed as TF Ironman, a subordinate unit of TF Red Bulls.

Editor's note: The following is an Iowa National Guard press release dated Sept. 7, 2012, regarding the presentation of the Reserve Force Policy Board's "Citizen Patriot" unit award in a Sept. 5 ceremony at Fort Myer, Va. For previous Red Bull Rising coverage regarding the award, click here.

Iowa's Red Bulls Recognized for 'Substantial Contribution' with DoD 'Citizen Patriot' Unit Award
By Iowa National Guard Public Affairs

One of the Iowa National Guard’s most storied units, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT), has been awarded the Department of Defense’s prestigious Citizen Patriot Unit Award. Presented by the Office of the Secretary of Defense Reserve Forces Policy Board, Red Bull leadership received the award during a presentation on Sept. 5, 2012 at the Fort Myer, Va. Officers Club.

According to Lt. Gen. William E. Ingram, Jr., Director of the Army National Guard, “The ‘Red Bulls’ distinguished themselves and made substantial contributions to the security and defense of the nation, while serving in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“As one of the largest single deployments since World War II, the 2-34th BCT proudly lived up to their heritage with several members being recognized with medals of valor. More importantly, recognition is due in light of the tremendous standard in which their mission was accomplished with the loss of four service members. They will not be forgotten,” said Ingram.

“The 2nd BCT was comprised of many combat-tested leaders who understood their charge of taking the fight to the enemy to ensure our continued safety and freedom here at home,” said Iowa Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Tim Orr. “As in previous conflicts, the Red Bulls lived up to their history and the reputation of Iowa’s Citizen-Soldiers as some of the finest and most dependable soldiers in the Army, and are therefore, as the nomination narrative details, most deserving of the Citizen Patriot Unit Award.”

According to Col. Ben Corell, the 2nd Brigade, 34th Infantry commander, the award is a tribute to all members of Task Force Red Bulls and those who prepared the unit for the Afghanistan mission and supported the Soldiers and their families during the year-long deployment.

“Our success was truly a collective effort. I have always been proud of the way the BCT executed its mission and of all the success we’ve achieved,” said Corell. “It gives me an even deeper sense of pride when our unit and our soldiers are recognized at the national level, as being the best in what they were asked to do for our nation.

“It was a distinct honor for me to represent not only the thousands of members of our military, from all components and branches of service who made up our Task Force, but also for our families, employers and all those who supported us throughout our deployment,” he said.

The unit departed Iowa in July 2010 for training at Camp Shelby, Miss. and arrived in Afghanistan in November 2010, where they transitioned into “Task Force Red Bulls.” During the course of the deployment, the unit partnered with the Afghan National Security Forces and also conducted full spectrum counterinsurgency operations. The Red Bulls returned home to Iowa in July 2011.

The four Iowans killed in action during the year-long deployment were:
The Citizen Patriot Award for Distinguished Service, awarded annually to one individual and one military unit across the Dept. of Defense organization, was created in 2002 in commemoration of the Reserve Forces Policy Board's 50th Anniversary. The Citizen Patriot Unit Award is presented to U.S. military units serving our nation. For more information about the Citizen Patriot Unit Award, go to http://ra.defense.gov/rfpb/awards/index.html.

Established criteria recognizes units making a substantial contribution to the security and/or defense posture of the United States of America in a manner worthy of recognition at the national level and demonstrating a quantifiable and recognizable pattern of excellence.

07 September 2012

Register to Run for Remembrance

The Third Annual Remembrance Run will be held 10 a.m. Sun., Sept. 30, 2012 at Raccoon River Park, West Des Moines, Iowa.

This event is a fund-raiser for Iowa Remembers, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The organization helps underwrite an annual retreat for families of Iowans who have died as the result of service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iowa Remembers also maintains a list of service members and others killed overseas since 2003. Prior to each year's race, the roll call is read aloud, along with either the U.S. National Anthem and/or the Pledge of Allegiance.

Following the 2012 race, food will be provided by Jethro's BBQ. Live music will be provided by Americana roots rock band Brother Trucker.

Registration for the Third Annual 5K walk/run event is $25 through Sept. 17. Late registration is $30 between Sept. 18-23 (with no T-shirt guaranteed). Both team and individual registrations are available. Children 12 and under can participate for free, but registration is required to receive T-shirt and medal.

Team registration is available for groups that want to honor a particular soldier or individual. Registration costs are the same.

Online registration is here.

For a route map, click here.

05 September 2012

Iowa 'Red Bull' Brigade Accepts National Award

A unit of 3,000 Iowa National Guard members has been awarded a "Citizen-Patriot Award" by the Reserve Forces Policy Board (R.F.P.B.) Fellows Society, a non-profit and non-partisan organization that educates on topics of interest to the U.S. National Guard and Reserves.

From July 2010 to August 2011, the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division" deployed some 3,000 Iowa, Nebraska, and other personnel to Eastern Afghanistan.

Units that receive Citizen Patriot Award are judged to "have made a substantial contribution to the security and/or defense posture of the United States of America in a manner worthy of recognition at the national level and will have demonstrated a quantifiable and recognizable pattern of excellence."

The award will be presented tonight, Sept. 5, 2012, at a dinner at Fort Myer, Va.

A 7-minute video supporting the unit's application for the award is available online here. The video notably opens with an introduction by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who was commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan during the 2-34th BCT deployment. The video also mentions the four Red Bull citizen-soldiers who were killed in 2011.

The Citizen Patriot Award for Distinguished Service was established in 2002, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Reserve Forces Policy Board (R.F.P.B.). The 20-member board is a federal advisory committee within the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The award is now administered by the RFPB Fellows Society, membership in which is limited and exclusively comprised of former board chairmen, members, and staff. The award takes the form of a bust of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, himself a former National Guard soldier and president when the board was established.

Since 2002, the Citizen Patriot Award has been awarded to 8 individuals and 7 units. According to criteria posted on the society's website, individuals who receive the award are judged to "have made a substantial contribution to the nation’s defense and to national security. Recipients will have demonstrated a quantifiable and recognizable pattern of excellence over a lifetime."

Previous individual and unit recipients of the award include:


04 September 2012

Dispatches from Blogistan

Former U.S. Marine and private security contractor Tim Lynch is putting his blog "Free Range International" on hiatus, so that he can focus on recovering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.). Luckily for Sherpa, bloggers such as Kentucky Woman and Kanani Fong have recommended any number of military and civilian personnel who are still fighting to write about life downrange.

Here are a few collected recommendations, posted here in no particular order:



Mobilized in December 2011 and deployed in late January 2012, writer Todd Uebele is a smart, cheeky U.S. Army captain (?) currently based somewhere in Afghanistan. In fact, he's snarkily living the deployment dream eerily similar to that which I once anticipated myself. Take, for example, this Aug. 25 post, titled "It's Good to be the King":
Apparently, there was a general was being briefed outside and had trouble hearing the briefer, so he or she ordered the generators shut down. Said generators provide power to a majority of the living area and office space here on camp. The good news was that a majority of the soldiers got a nice break. The bad news was they had no place to go as their living areas also had no power. 
I was talking to the Brigade XO and he suggested I go eat. I told him I already had. Then he suggested I go to the gym. I told him I already had. Next he suggested I do a general walk about. Just to keep the theme going, I told him I already had. Finally he offered me some ice cream money. Even if I already had, I would have taken it :).


"Before the Patrol," @2012 Skip Rohde
In stateside life, Skip Rohde is a contemporary narrative painter and former U.S. Navy officer. From 2008 to 2010, he worked as a civilian in Iraqi reconstruction projects. He's currently working for the U.S. Department of State, a civilian deployed to help building infrastructure in Southern Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. He's slated to return home to North Carolina in October 2012. In both words and pictures, he occasionally presents snippets and scenes of his Afghan experiences at this blog.

Armed with his artistic gaze, Rohde makes even seemingly routine scenes come to life in new ways. On Aug. 19, for example, he wrote about getting back into the Afghan grind, after spending some time back home in North Carolina. I love the details, such as "don't-give-a-hoot crews" and military-issue backpacks:
I arrived back in Maiwand this morning. It was a long trip. I left Asheville on Monday evening. The flight was delayed a bit by weather, but I still got to Atlanta in plenty of time to catch the flight to Dubai. Some of my friends have recently had some bad experiences with United (lost bags, cancelled flights, and don't-give-a-hoot crews and representatives) but Delta has been pretty good for me. Our flight was packed with lots of US civilians obviously heading to Afghanistan. How did I know? They had this certain look to them, of men who had done hard things in difficult situations for long periods of time; calm, competent, no-bullshit carriage. That, and the military-issue backpacks.


Blogger Ty Mayfield is a self-described "political affairs strategist" in the U.S. Air Force, with multiple deployments to Southwest and Central Asia. He holds graduate degrees in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Okla., and in National Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Ty is currently participating in the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) directed AFPAK Hands program and splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Kabul, Afghanistan.

Bottom line: He's wicked-smart. Also, he has a sense of humor. Take, for example, this Aug. 16 post titled "My Enemy has a Name: 'Checklist'":
It’s 5 or 6 pages, double-sided and written in about 10 font. Much of it is cryptic, vague and misleading. It seems simple but rest assured that when it comes to deploying; nothing is ever easy.

I was notified via SMS text message by an Afghan-American about my Oral Proficiency Interview (O.P.I.) test results well before the government could get word to me. In retrospect, it isn’t surprising and I didn’t find it unusual at all when the message came across. I mean, why would the Test Control Officer know first? It actually gave me a little chuckle and a glimpse into the networked life of Afghans. Word travels fast in a high-context, relationship-oriented society; any government that tries to outpace the speed of the SMS text is in for a world of heartache.


Dan Bohmer describes himself as "just another soldier far from home," a U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery turned Medical Service Corps officer deployed to Eastern Afghanistan. He says he likes to shoot pictures more than he likes to write. He doesn't claim to be a photographer, but, as he puts it—he does have a great camera. According to the "Big Day" counter found on his blog's home page, he will soon to return to the states. If that's truly the case, I hope he continues to write and reflect on his experiences, particularly as he has captured many different facets of military life.

Take, for example, this confrontation with petty warrant officer tyranny, as the warfighter-customer (remember Sherpatude No. 19?) attempts to get a new ID card:
It was obvious [NCO 2] had not heard the discussion I had been having with her boss because as she stepped into the room, took one look at me and said, 'Chief said you might be back, let me check the system to see if it is up.' NCO 1 told her 'No, you cannot check the system until we get a call back.' NCO 2 said, 'What if they forgot to call us?’ NCO 1 said, 'Chief said they wouldn't; do not touch that system unless they call us.' NCO 2 gave her the look like she couldn’t believe anyone could possibly be so dumb, looked at me, shrugged and as she picked up the phone said, 'well, I'll just call them then.' NCO 1 started to say something but NCO 2 had already dialed the number and gave her the 'hand.' The phone call lasted about 15 seconds as the helpdesk assured her the system had been up for several hours.

NCO 2 made me an ID card ... NCO 1 just sat there with a stupid look on her face. WO1 has obviously taught NCO 1 well in the art of not doing your job while acting smug, smart, and important. WO1 & NCO 1 have a bright future at any DMV or government 'service' office ahead of them when they leave the Army.


I met Ryan Koch at the Military Experience and the Arts Symposium at Eastern Kentucky University last July. A fellow Iowan, he recognized my "Red Bull" bowling shirt. He'd joined the Iowa Army National Guard in 2007 after graduating from high school. He was a member of 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry (1-168th Inf.) before he transferred to active-duty in 2009, so he is also 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division alumnus. He deployed to Eastern Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division—the "Screaming Eagles"—at the same time the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Inf. Div. (2-34th BCT) was also downrange. He even came encountered some Iowa Red Bull buddies during his Afghan travels in 2010-2011. Big world, small Army.

Koch is now studying communications at Iowa Wesleyan College, Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where he's also a college sports reporter and is active in the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (V.F.W.). Since the symposium, he's been posting occasional essays and photos regarding his time in Afghanistan, including these regarding the comforts of home:
There was a chow hall, of course, about 4 hajj shops, a barber shop, and a bread store. The bread store was amazing. The Afghani who ran it was this really old guy who only knew how to say about 4 things in English; Sugar, no sugar, one dollar, and thank you come again. The bread in Afghanistan was actually pretty damn good, and he would bake it fresh every day. The best compliment to the bread? A Boom Boom. Boom Booms were the Afghan equivalent to a Red Bull, and they were only a dollar! They were damn good as well, and many times you would see soldiers leaving the hajj shops with a case of 20 Boom Booms. You would have to guard them with your life though, because snooping sergeants and other soldiers wouldn’t hesitate to snag one off your bunk if you left it laying there unguarded. [...]

It wasn’t the luxurious lifestyle we were accustomed to, but any little thing that could give us a taste of the civilized world gave us that little bit of a morale boost to keep us going another day.

Little did any of us know that soon, we would need every little bit of morale boost we could get, and it still wouldn’t be enough ...