Jojo was released from prison on January 3rd, 2017, and has re-united with his beautiful wife and three young children. He’s been given a Second Chance, and we wish him the very best!!
The time period for this first-hand account of events takes place November of 2005 in Falluja. My unit, which was entrusted to clear convoy routes for medical and ordinance convoys, had been in country for 10 days, when command sent word down the chain for the men with boots on the ground to come up with ways to strength friendly relations with the locals, and especially children ages 4-12.
Here we were a bunch of 18-25-year-old men in combat for the first time, sitting in the most dangerous place on the planet, and doing a job only an insane person would consider. And they wanted us to make these people our friends. “Command is out of their minds,” we all said. But hey, orders are orders.
At first, like most of my brothers, I would carry small candies or chocolate bars from my care packages sent from home, and hand them out to young kids. As a team, we all immediately understood and recognized the tactical benefit of the sweets. When we would come into a village we knew two things: if the kids came to get sweets, we were good.
Click to hear Jojo's story in his own words
If they didn’t show up, we knew to expect possible contact from a hostile force. Giving sweets was never something personal for me – it was a task with a positive outcome for a tactical situation. It became a tool of the trade, nothing more.
I was 18 years old, no kids of my own, and when I looked at these kids, all I saw were future soldiers: the next generation growing up to hate Americans. In one of my care packages, my 6-year-old niece sent me a Bugs Bunny key chain. She included a little note that said it was for luck, so her uncle would come home to her. It was that little key chain, worth probably $0.50, that would forever change the way I looked at those kids.
Map of Iraq (Google Maps)
In mid-January of 2006, eight of my brothers and myself were out on a standard patrol, just like a hundred times before, in some village none of us could say the name of without butchering it, when a young child of 9-10 years saw that Bugs Bunny key chain hanging on my pack. He kept pointing at it, and through our translator from the local Afghan Army, I found out that the kid did not know who Bugs Bunny was. I couldn’t believe that, so through the translator I tried explaining who Bugs Bunny was. There I was, hopping around with my hands held above my head like bunny ears (in full combat gear, mind you), and this kid was cracking up laughing. So I gave him that damn key chain. And boy did his eyes light up!
It was in that moment that I realized these were just normal kids. I wanted to see them smile more. It made me think of when I would goof off and draw with my niece back home. So when we got back to the F.O.B., I went to the canteen to see if they had any art supplies, like colored pencils, paper, scissors, etc. Turned out, one of the community care packages had what I needed. I had always enjoyed drawing and I had an idea, so that night I drew two Bugs Bunny cards and a Tazmanian Devil card. Nothing special – the cards were about 2 inches tall by 3 inches wide, and inside I would write small things like, “The Army Loves You”, or “Have A Nice Day”, and have the translator write it again in Arabic underneath so they could read it.
I gave the Tazmanian Devil card to the kid I’d previously given the key chain to (he was a regular). Later he found us again, and had brought along some friends. I only had two more cards, so I told them to share them with their friends and I that I would make more. And I did. I had all the guys have their family sending supplies. I’d spend most of my down time during the week drawing these cards, and then me and the guys would hand them out on patrols. The kids loved them – we would probably hand out 20-30 cards every week. The kids wanted them more than the chocolate!
Satellite Map of Fallujah (Google Maps)
That was a 12-month deployment to the worst place you could imagine, and here I was drawing cartoons to make kids smile. It became personal for me, as I’m sure it did for many of my brothers and sisters in arms who likewise found small ways to show love and friendship to a culture of people who didn’t understand us, and vice versa.
I continued this throughout two additional deployments to Baghdad. Each with its own set of obstacles and frustrations, but the cards I hand-made continued to be a big hit with the kids, and a bright spot in a place far away from home. My last deployment ended in February 2009. Twenty-nine days later, in May, I was sent to prison. My is almost up, and I’m ready for what comes next, even after all these years (nearly 11 in total). Re-living this memory reminds me why I love art so much, and how it is not only an integral part of who I am as a human being, a father, and a husband, but how intertwined it is with the solider in my blood.
Art gave me this incredible memory – it’s something that lives inside of me, something with it’s own pulse and life. A gift from God, to be shared.
NOTE: For desktop viewers, the background image of this page has been sourced from the public domain, and is not an actual photograph of the artist.