Just in Time for Memorial Day: UC Arts Leadership Brings "Comic Relief" to Veterans

Some of the Cincinnati region’s military veterans are enlisting again.

Not for a military mission, but rather for an artistic one.

They’ve enlisted in a unique exercise at the University of Cincinnati where graphic novelist Carol Tyler, adjunct instructor of fine arts, is teaming students in her comics course one-on-one with local veterans.

The 17 student cartoonists in Tyler’s UC course, titled the “Graphic Novel – Color,” are meeting with and interviewing veterans about the vets’ wartime experiences. Each student is now working to tell a veteran’s story via a “comic book” series of graphics and text that extends over two pages.

The unusual assignment has three objectives:

  • To help veterans talk about their military experiences and the effects on their lives. (Think of it as serious "comic relief.")

  • To help non-military citizens understand and appreciate the military experience and its ongoing effects on veterans and their families.

  • To train students to practice and improve their art while engaging with the community.


GENESIS OF THE PROJECT

The teaming of area veterans with UC graphic arts (comics) students came about because of a long-term project by Tyler: a

three-book series

titled “You’ll Never Know,” recently  published by Fantagraphics Books of Seattle.

Central to the series is her father’s service in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany during World War II, where he fought in the Arno River Campaign, the Battle of the Bulge and other campaigns.

She explained,

“The effects of his experiences were felt by all of us in the family over the years, but he couldn’t talk about them. The same is true of today’s veterans, but working via comics and graphic narratives provides a process and an outlet to work some of that out. My father finally began to talk about his experiences 60 years later when I was working on my book. That was the genesis of teaming my students with veterans.”

DAAP fine art students work with veterans as part of Carol Tyler's comic book class.

Evan Wolff and Sam Freidet

This innovative assignment is in keeping with advancements in the field of the graphic novel. Comics (also known as graphic novels) are not just kids’ stuff. They are now full-length books that deal with weighty subjects, like the Holocaust. Museums now collect pages of comic art, and The New York Times regularly reviews graphic novels. Many graphic novels have been best sellers, and one has even won a Pulitzer Prize.

A COMIC BOOT CAMP FOR STUDENTS

In April and May, each student in the UC College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) class is meeting with and creating a graphic storyline about each veteran. Some students are meeting with two veterans and completing two such projects.

For instance, fine arts sophomore Sunny Han, 20, of Mt. Healthy, Ohio, is currently teamed with United States Marine Corps veteran Steve Schotte, 28, who is currently an international affairs senior at UC. Schotte enlisted at the age of 18 and subsequently saw active duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq, first in an anti-terrorism brigade and then in a reconnaissance unit.

The project to graphically illustrate Schotte’s military experiences has become a lot more than a classroom assignment for Han. She explained, “I want to honor Steve as he’s been an honor to our country. I very much respect him and the job the military has done. He’s a hero to me because he’s done a very hard job where he had to stay very alert despite the boredom and mental fatigue of his reconnaissance role in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

DAAP fine art students work with veterans as part of Carol Tyler's comic book class.

Sunny Han and Steve Schotte

In her graphic novelette regarding Schotte, Han is not so much focusing on physical bloodshed or the environmental conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq but on the mental toll the war takes on combatants.

She said, “I hadn’t thought about it before talking to Steve, but the mental strain is tremendous for those serving in combat. And that hasn’t entirely gone away even though Steve is now back in the United States and going to school. He is still pulled in different directions. He’s here now, but thinks about going back and continuing his military service because his old unit will soon be deployed again. That decision and struggle is incorporated into what I’m creating.”

Han is working to get all the details right. She is in frequent contact with Schotte regarding the details of military equipment, such as what a tank really looks like.

If there’s one thing Han is nervous about, it’s the challenge of getting the details right and having her art live up to all that Schotte and other veterans have experienced.

She admitted, “I’m nervous about seeing Steve’s reaction to my work. I hope he loves it. I want him to think it’s an awesome representation of his experiences and not have him feel he has to give a polite response to something that doesn’t reflect his attitudes and experiences.”

MEET SOME OF THE VETERANS TEAMING WITH UC’S ARTS STUDENTS

Some of the veterans participating in the course project include

  • Joel Ashenbaum, 65, of Montgomery, Ohio, who served as a combat medic in Germany during the Cold War and then in Vietnam.

  • UC student Ray Crist, 25, from Amelia, Ohio, who served as a U.S. Marine Corps.  infantry gunner in Afghanistan.

  • Charles Doan, 63, from Union Township, Ohio, who served in an infantry rifle company in Vietnam as a machine gunner and radio operator.

  • UC student Sam Freidet, 25, of Sidney, Ohio, who joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17, and served as a diesel mechanic in Kuwait.

  • UC student Steve Schotte, 28, of Fort Thomas, Ky., who served with the U.S. Marine Corps in anti-terrorism and reconnaissance units in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Joel Ashenbaum

Joel Ashenbaum, manager of the mini-mart located in UC’s Tangeman University Center, served as an army veteran in Germany during the Cold War and then in Vietnam. He has teamed with UC fine arts student Kenny Heidenreich to tell his story.

Ashenbaum recalled, “Going to Vietnam as a medic was like going to Vietnam with a big target painted on your body. The Viet Cong deliberately tried to kill medics because killing a medic meant you killed hundreds of soldiers.”

He wanted to participate in the comics course project because he wanted to communicate, as best he could, what it “feels like to see people shot and blown up just six feet away from you. As a combat medic, I came away with the lesson that everyone loses in a war. No one wins.”

Ray Crist

UC secondary education major Ray Crist, 25, of Amelia, Ohio, joined the U.S. Marine Corps in August 2001 and subsequently served in the infantry in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

His participation in the UC comics course marks the first time he’s ever spoken about his military experiences beyond the circle of family and friends.

“It sounded like an interesting project. My wife saw information about the project online and told me about it. Then, instructor Carol Tyler had a table at the university center, where they grabbed me to participate,” recalled Crist.

DAAP fine art students work with veterans as part of Carol Tyler's comic book class.

David Miranda-Klein and Ray Crist

The best part, he said, was hearing the stories of other veterans participating in the project. The hardest part, he admitted, was trying to discuss his military experiences to someone without such experience.

“It’s hard,” stated Crist. “There are some aspects you can’t possibly explain. You can’t explain about the camaraderie in a unit, that it’s far more than just a job. You can’t put that other person in your shoes and explain how it feels to be in a firefight.”

Charlie Doan

Vietnam War veteran Charlie Doan has teamed with UC fine arts student Stephanie Ress, and Ress is now producing a graphic storyline detailing Doan’s military experiences.

As president of a local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, Doan is participating in the project as a means of educating a new generation regarding the Vietnam War and its effects.

“Though I’ve presented at schools before, this is the first time I’ve worked one-on-one with a student and the first time with the goal of producing an art assignment related to the war,” said Doan. “I really shared a great deal of information with her, so I don’t know how Stephanie will be able to condense or represent my experiences in the war, how it will all come together or what will happen with this project. She’s got a tough assignment.”

And while Doan shared memories of combat assaults, night ambush patrols, the military draft, the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside and more, perhaps the most telling effect of his wartime experiences came in the form of a dream – or nightmare – he had for years after returning home from Vietnam.

He recollected, “For a long time, I had a dream about getting re-drafted for a second tour of duty. In my dream, I protest that I’ve already been there and that I shouldn’t be drafted for a second tour until everyone else has been there at least once. I want everyone to receive the same, equal treatment. In the dream, I’m just told, ‘Tough luck. Nobody cares.’”

Sam Freidet

As a diesel mechanic serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Kuwait and in the United States, Freidet, completing paralegal and philosophy studies at UC, teamed up with UC fine arts student Evan Wolff for the comics course project.

And the resulting work will likely be the most lighthearted of the entire class. Freidet reported on how – in Kuwait – he was once covered in about 100 gallons of a truck’s hydraulic oil in the space of 1.5 seconds due to a mishap with a repair job. The event occurred – of course – when the portable showers at his Kuwait base were not functioning, and the daytime heat was well above 100 degrees.

“Between the heat, being covered in oil and the sand, I can tell you that baby wipes just don’t cut it,” he recollected.

Or another memory: Standing guard duty on an empty parking lot during a North Carolina ice storm. Freidet stood so still while at parade rest that he himself become covered in about a half inch of ice.

“I wanted to get involved in the arts project because I want to get involved in school as much as I can. The arts students had set up a table over in the student center and were drawing vets to their table because they’d set up military memorabilia. It was a real draw to get vets to come and talk about their experiences,” said Freidet.

Steve Schotte

After having served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan and Iraq, Schotte is now a UC student completing an international affairs degree. For the current project, Schotte is teamed with art student Sunny Han.

Schotte said he volunteered to participate in the project because he knows that many combat veterans don’t like to talk about their experiences. “However, I’m open about it, about answering questions. I want to represent my fellow veterans on campus, who might be more closed off due to the memories they have. I not only want to be a positive representative of my fellow veterans, but I wanted to help the art students. I thought they might not get volunteers because some vets just can’t talk about their experiences without getting on edge,” he explained.

He said the best part of the experience for him was Sunny Han’s enthusiasm for the project and his story. Schotte said that he spoke to Han about fellow marines he had grown close to in both dangerous and even funny situations. “So many of the things I experienced felt like they happened to a third person. I’ll be interested in how she depicts my story. But I know I’ll be happy with it so long as she get an ‘A’ in the course,” he stated.

Other veterans participating in the project are Lynn Ashley, a World War II army-air corps veteran; Bob Brewster, a U.S. Air Force veteran; Ramon Colon, a World War II U.S. Army veteran; Drew Ellis, a current UC student and U.S. Navy veteran; Ken Glass, a World War II navy veteran; Ernie Hall, a Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran; John Harrison, a World War II veteran; John McElwee, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran; Frank Mendralski, a Vietnam War navy veteran; Elmer Reis, a World War II army veteran; Todd Robinson, an air force veteran; and David Scott, a Vietnam War veteran.

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