In the battlefields of Iraq, between the distress and fear of war, Sergeant Stephen Opet has been able to find the spiritual strength to create fine art, wood carving and also cartoon illustrations. His good sense of humor entertains and encourages his comrades and helps them to distract their minds from their stress.

A natural artist since his childhood, Steve Opet decided to enroll at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh after high school, where he was on the Dean’s List and earned an Associates Degree in 1975.

He became a communications specialist for Weirton Steel Company in 1979, designing and rendering safety posters, slides and overheads for presentations, 35 mm photography and darkroom work.

Starting in 1977, Opet started to enter his works in local art shows and exhibits, earning more than 50 awards over the years, including 21 Merit Awards, 4 Best of Show and 6 Special Awards. On the Army side, he has won 9 First Place awards for Illustrative Art in the Army wide (Active, National Guard and Army Reserve) Keith L. Ware Annual Competition for excellence in journalism. His piece "Barefoot Swingers", won an Award of Excellence (Purchase Award) in the West Virginia Governor's Annual Exhibition, 2003.

Opet became a soldier in 1982 and at the same time, earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Point Park College, Pittsburgh, PA in 1990, while being on active duty.

We spoke with Stephen Opet about his impressive art work and his life as a soldier.

Your art portrays the scenes in black and white, yet there is always a touch of color, which makes it fascinating.
When I was a young boy, I was fascinated with the black and white engravings I saw in my school history texts. I wanted to draw like that, and not knowing that they were etchings, I developed my black and white crosshatching style with pen and ink, then later with ballpoint pens. I personally am drawn (pun intended) to the heavy contrast I find in black and white drawings. I DO like color though! I started to add a small splash of colors to my drawings to attract the viewer’s eye, and I want them to wonder why I chose that particular item or section to highlight….that is my secret though!

Your artwork is inspired by photographs from family albums that render life in America.

Having two full-time careers concurrently, (steel-worker, Army Reserve Soldier); I found it easier to use photographs as reference material due to my hectic schedule. Every now-and-then, I love browsing through my family albums to find a long-forgotten photo the evokes an emotion in me…the I get the urge to draw it. When looking for non-family photos, I am attracted to unusual settings, lots of contrast, and interesting people. I first rough out the drawing with pencil, then, still with pencil, put more detail into it. Then for me comes the fun part…rendering the drawing with pen, then charcoal, and finally, throwing in that “splash” of color. It’s great to be accepted into exhibits and win awards, but the fun part is in the creation of the drawing and after the first elation of completely finishing a piece, there is always a let down feeling….until I start my next one.

When and why did Stephen Opet the artist become a soldier?
In 1982 I was laid off from my job as a graphic artist in the Communications Dept. of Weirton Steel Division, Weirton, WV. After my health benefits ran out, my wife Pegeen (who I loved dearly and who passed away 12 June, 2006 while I was at Fort Hood, Texas) developed medical problems and needed an operation. I joined the Army Reserve to help pay for her operation. I never thought that I would enjoy my duty in the Army so much that I would still be a Soldier 24 years later!

You create fine art and carving as well as cartoon illustrations about the life in the army. Does the humor in your cartoons help the other soldiers to endeavor the combat life situation?
I have had many Soldiers come to me and tell me that my cartoons reflect what they and their buddies have experienced and the humor and laughs do help lighten their duty. Two examples: When I was on tour for Operation Joint Guardian, Kosovo in 2000, I was the 1st Sergeant for the 326th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment from Reading, PA. The unit published a bimonthly paper “The Falcon Flyer.” I did a cartoon for each issue, and got a lot of good reviews. But, the best was a young Soldier that came up to me in the dining facility one day to tell me, “Sergeant Opet, I have a scrapbook of all of your cartoons, they make me laugh and are exactly what we are going through here and it makes my day when the paper comes out.” My neighbor, Dave Bartoli, emailed my Iraq cartoons to his son Josh, who is serving in the Army in Iraq. Josh, said all the guys in his unit love them and are printing them out and hanging them in their hooch’s. These guys are Army Scouts and I will get their unit and the camp they are in tomorrow if you need that information? 

Does that help you?
Oh yes, definitely! Especially my more serious drawings. There is so much detail in them, and just losing myself in creating the last few really helped me cope in the months after my wife Pegeen died. She was my “reverse” critic…if she hated a piece, it would win Best of Show, and if she really liked one it would get rejected from the next show I would enter!

What are your duties during your deployments?
In past deployments I was the 1st Sergeant and my duties included taking care of the 16 Soldiers under me. Ensuring their safety and training, as well as making sure they had a place to sleep and enough to eat. I was also Media Escort for civilian media and the right-hand man for my Commander. Since taking a voluntary reduction in rank to Sgt. 1st Class to go back on active duty, I am now the Training Sergeant and my duties are to ensure my Soldiers are trained to the highest level in their Soldier skills and their military occupational specialties as print and broadcast journalists.

You have traveled to many countries as a reserve soldier. They all must have left different memories and some of them bad.
I’ve been to Central America many times. My last mission to Guatemala in 2004 was memorable. We were doing pictures, video and articles about Army Reserve doctors and nurses. They held what is called a Med Ready…free medical treatment and care for the people near the base we were stationed at. My memory is of a doctor breaking down into tears, because she couldn’t do anything to save a Guatemalan baby who was dying of malnutrition. The people would come by the hundreds and walk many miles to see the American medical personnel, and the Americans did everything that they could to help, but this one time, it was just so sad…something you rarely, if ever, see here in the States.

Tell us about any anecdotes that were touching or hilarious and will stay in your mind forever?
The time I dropped my favorite patrol cap in the port-a-john in Japan? I left it there! (Laughs.) A lot of funny things happened over the years, but one touching event happened to me in Belgium in 1991. The unit patch on my uniform is the “Checkerboard” of the Army Reserve 99th Regional Readiness Command (RRC). The 99th RRC is descended from the 99th Infantry Division, called the “Battle Babies” from their duty during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. An elderly woman came up to me in a store with tears in her eyes to “thank” me! Her village had been liberated by American Soldiers wearing the 99th patch when she was a little girl. It did choke me up to see the emotion in her after all those years and get thanked for something the brave men that came before I did.

Tell us about your projects. Are you planning to print a comic book?
Right now I’m doing several caricatures for people retiring or moving onto another duty station. I still have to do a group cartoon of me and my friends from our time in Iraq. A good friend of mine (who is a more creative writer than me) does want to collaborate on an adult book.