Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers Live
Multimedia piece by Staff Sgt. Sean Harp and Sgt. Walter Reeves, 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera).
What happens when two Army veterans, an Air Force pilot and a Marine vet walk into an installation club, climb on stage and start telling jokes? Here’s a hint: Laughter happens — the kind of laughter that comes from your belly. The kind of laughter that makes you cry.
That’s because they didn’t tell just any jokes. They told jokes like, “I wasn’t the most squared away Soldier you ever met and my drill sergeant just hated me,” former Pfc. Tom Irwin began. “At the live-fire exercise, he was like, ‘The only thing that has to happen tonight is someone has to shoot Pvt. Irwin.’ So we gathered for formation afterwards and he’s like, ‘Irwin?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Drill Sergeant!’ And he said ‘Shit!’”
Or jokes like retired Staff Sgt. Thom Tran’s story of having a door stolen from his Humvee in Kuwait: “So I grab these two privates and I say, ‘Hey, Beevis and Butthead, come here. You go get me a door. I don’t care where you get it from. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to know where you get it from. Just get me a door.’
“They run off and do, whatever privates do, and the next morning I’m having breakfast. A very pissed off captain from the 82nd Airborne comes right up to my table and goes ‘What the hell is my door doing on your truck?’ … So I go outside, and on my Humvee is a door, and on that door, in big, black letters, it says: ‘Property of the 82nd Airborne.’
“So I look at these two knuckleheads and I went ‘Are you (stupid)?’ And the one kid … goes ‘Sergeant. It’s cool. We wrote ‘Not’ above property.’
“One of those privates is now a lieutenant.”
Cue the belly laughs.
The guys are part of The GIs of Comedy, an all-veteran comedy troupe, and they are on a mission to continue serving – one joke at a time. Tran founded the group after stand-up comedy helped him cope with his own demons, and after he kept running into other talented comedians who also happened to be veterans.
In fact, it was a comic who helped convince Tran to enlist in the Army in 1997: He wanted to be Robin Williams’ character, Adrian Cronauer, in “Good Morning Vietnam.” Unfortunately, the Army doesn’t have an “Adrian Cronauer” specialty, he joked, and the local recruiter didn’t have any available broadcaster slots. ‘What about communications?’ the recruiter asked. “I didn’t know anything about he Army and how many different kinds of commo there were, so I was like ‘Sure. I can do that,’” Tran remembered. He ended up in Special Operations, where he also picked up a civil affairs specialty.
Fortunately, military service was something of a family tradition and Tran had actually been serious about joining the Army: His father and his uncle were both pilots in the South Vietnamese air force, his grandfather in its secret service. Both his grandfather and uncle were killed during the war, and while his father survived, he was captured after the fall of Saigon and held in a prisoner of war camp for three years. He escaped in 1978, and after spending some time in a refugee camp in Thailand, the family emigrated to the U.S. in 1980, shortly after Tran’s birth.
“I realized how many people really sacrificed, not just for my family, but for everyone,” he explained. “I joined the Army kind of hoping to give back a little. … I fell in love with it. I was like, ‘Wow. I love this. I love what these people have made me into.’” Tran had joined the Reserves, but between training and different operations, especially after 9-11, he was on duty far more than one weekend a month and two weeks a year. In between missions, he deejayed on local radio stations and attended college, but the Army was his life.
He was even excited to deploy to Iraq in early 2003, but once he was there, “it got real, real fast, as I like to say in my act.” In fact, Tran was shot in the head during a firefight near Al Nasiriyah only four days after he crossed the border. “I didn’t actually know that I had gotten shot,” he recalled. “I remember very distinctly thinking, ‘Somebody hit a building. Some shrapnel hit me.’ … I touched my neck. I looked at my hand. It was blood. There were some angry, four-letter words. And then I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m a combat lifesaver, I should probably bandage my head.’ So in the middle of a firefight, I take off my Kevlar, put the bandage on, grabbed a weapon … and took a defensive position.”
Tran cracked some jokes so everyone knew he was OK, and then continued his mission. He didn’t make it to the combat support hospital until hours later, and then the doctor “put four staples in my head, wrapped up my head in a bandage, stuck an IV in my arm and sent me back to duty.” Had the bullet been a quarter centimeter over, it would have taken off the back of Tran’s head, but as it was, he was fine. He didn’t want to go home, he told his first sergeant that night. He had a mission to finish, Soldiers to take care of. In comparison, getting shot and narrowly missing death didn’t seem like a big deal. It wasn’t until later, until after his roommate was killed only two weeks before redeployment, until after he went home, that Tran realized how close he had come.
“When I came home and I realized – I mean, really realized – what had happened, I had a breakdown,” he said, explaining that he went back to school immediately and at his graduation party a few months later, “I was in the backyard in tears, just inconsolably, uncontrollably in tears because it all hit me. … I realized (my roommate) was gone. I realized that I’d been shot. I realized I still had friends and people I loved who were deployed.”
He started drinking – a lot. His commanders even took away his duties and sent him to work for local recruiters. He was angry. He lost his fiancée. He ruined a series of relationships. He gained a lot of weight. He almost had a heart attack at the age of 25. He was the “poster boy” for post-traumatic stress disorder, a doctor at the Department of Veterans Affairs told him. But doctors and therapists couldn’t reach him. Nothing worked. He had to medically retire from the career he loved.
And then he found comedy. A friend he worked with at a radio station in Buffalo, N.Y., owned a comedy club and asked Tran to host a few times. “I’d start off with a joke here, a joke there, and then it evolved from me being the host to being one of the comics,” Tran remembered. Eventually, “I realized how much fun I was having on stage and how much fun other people were having and then I started integrating my military experience into my act, and I found that was helpful for me.
“Therapeutic is the only way I can describe how stand up comedy has influenced my life,” he continued. “Five minutes of being on stage was better than any hour I could sit with a shrink or a counselor or a therapist. … Telling jokes is my therapy. I have to do it two or three times a week now, just to not be miserable. … It helps my soul to forget.”
Tran eventually joined the USO for a comedy tour in Iraq, and later ran into Air Force Maj. Jose Sarduy, former Marine Sgt. Will “C.” and Irwin around L.A. “I remember thinking there has never been a group of veterans who have gone back as a group to perform,” Tran said. “Sure, there were guys who were in the military who are now entertainers who have gone back … but there’s never been just a group of vets. So I said, ‘I’m going to grab these funny dudes and I’m going to form a group. I’m going to give it a cool name.’ I actually thought that: ‘I’m going to give it a cool name.’”
Like Tran, Irwin is from a suburb of Buffalo. They had worked at the same radio station at different times, played the same comedy clubs and even had mutual friends, but they had never met. Irwin was a supply Soldier and his rank, he likes to joke, went up and down a few times thanks to his joie de vivre, his tendency to be a comedian even then: His first sergeant, he remembers, used to ask if he could ever be serious. “I liked to just have fun and laugh and he was just very serious. … He said, ‘Something’s not right with you: You laugh too much. Nothing can be that funny.’”
But he was serious, serious about serving – like many veterans, he joined in 1986 to give back, to “pay my tab” – and he’s still giving back. He’s performed in Iraq three times and Afghanistan once, and called the gratitude and appreciation he received overwhelming. Servicemembers lined up to thank him, but “we should be thanking them,” he said.
After his first trip to Iraq, he came home and “felt like there was a high rate of complacency among civilians in the States. People just thought, you know, ‘It’s not someone in my family, it’s not one of my friends, so I don’t really care.’ My goal was to create a performance piece that I could raise awareness for veterans through telling my story, but also entertaining them and making them laugh at the same time. The show (“21 Days in Iraq”) is not about politics. It’s about people. It’s about what happens to people who get sent to war.”
And while war itself isn’t funny, daily life in combat can be, both Irwin and Tran agreed: They make fun of things like the long wait times to get things done in the military, the food and fighting insurgents in underwear and flip flops. (That actually happened, Tran swears.) They can make fun of things that Soldiers can’t, Irwin explained, and laughter can be a savior in combat: “They have to laugh, they have to keep each other laughing, whether it’s from tricks that they play on each other, or things they say to each other or stories they tell each other, because you can’t just focus on the incredible stress that lies ahead every day, or else no one would be able to survive.”
The GIs of Comedy haven’t made it back to the war zone as a group yet, but they are currently touring Army installations around the United States, and they hope to make it to Afghanistan soon: “Anywhere there’s a Soldier or a Marine or an Airman or a Sailor deployed, anywhere in the world, I want to go,” Tran said, “whether it’s Afghanistan or Japan or Greenland. There’s a small island off the coast of Alaska with like four dudes guarding a shed. I’ll go up there and perform for them.
“I say it all the time: I was a noncommissioned officer. My job was to take care of Soldiers. … I can’t do that in uniform any more, so I’ll do it with a microphone and a stage now. We do it with our jokes now.”