Friday, December 25, 2009

Wounded vet heals through his comedy act

From NPR:

It's open mic night at the Rivercenter Comedy Club in San Antonio. The club is the place in town where aspiring comics test out new material and try to get someone in the small crowd to laugh. But Iraq War veteran Bobby Henline (pictured) knows that before anyone can laugh at him, he must first make them comfortable with just looking at his burned skin and amputated arm.

"In case you didn't notice, I'm a burn survivor. I've been extinguished for years now. It's actually a rare birth defect. It's a sad story. My mother had to work in the circus as a fire eater while she was pregnant and she thinks she has the right to complain about her acid reflux. Mom, come on!"

The bit got some good laughs.

Most of Henline's face and head is covered by a burn scar. Parts of his ears are missing. Scar tissue makes it difficult to open his left eye and very little hair grows on the top his head. His left hand and forearm below his elbow were amputated six months ago. But despite the horrific injuries he’s endured, Henline gets the audience to laugh.

"Christmas — you've got to spend lots of money. I hate spending money. Halloween is my favorite holiday because I make lots of money at the haunted house. I made $50 laying in my neighbor's yard. I even got a modeling job at the Halloween Super Store."

Again, more good laughs.

A roadside bomb hit the Army convoy truck Henline was driving in Iraq nearly three years ago. He spent months recovering inside the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and went through dozens of surgeries. During the most difficult days of his recovery, he tried to maintain his sense of humor, telling jokes to his doctors and therapists.

"And they just thought I was funny, and they were like 'You've got to go do stand-up.' And I thought, 'I can't do that. It's different making you laugh here,'" Henline says.

Every time Henline steps up to the mic, it's another step in his emotional healing process.

"So, of course the first thing I do is usually get the pink elephant out of the room and make fun of the way I look. I'll start off with a zombie joke. So I always try to get that out of the way first to let them know it's OK to laugh at me," Henline says.

Henline has made a name for himself at the comedy club and attracted large crowds at open mic night. His wife, Connie, however, isn't laughing all the time.

"I've only seen him twice. I'm scared what’s he going to say about the family when he's up there. I don't always find him humorous," she says. "I think others love his humo—-- so I think that he does well."

But Connie is a big fan of her husband. Sometimes Henline asks her to listen to his new material before he performs it.

"I tell him 'No, don't tell that. It's not funny at all.' And then he tries it out, and everyone loves it. So I guess that's how he tries out his stuff on me: If I don't like it, it's going to work," she says.

Connie is most excited about how comedy has helped her husband heal into a happier person. She's seen him on the brink of death and watched him overcome enormous physical and emotional challenges.

"He enjoys getting out and interacting with the public. So I think it's really good for him. It's definitely made him more relaxed and easy going. He has something to do and something to focus on," she says.

Henline is aware that healing is a personal process, so when he does his routine at special military comedy shows and for wounded warriors at hospitals, his message becomes more personal.

"You know, life goes on, and that's the whole point I'm trying to get to those guys — especially when they're newly injured — that, 'Look, you're going to get past this. Because I remember when I was hurt, I thought there's a lot of things I couldn't do anymore, with my kids or going to the gym. I never thought I'd be able to do these things, and I’m doing them now.'"

Henline continues to get stronger both on stage and off. Last month he performed an open mic set at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. He will get a permanent prosthetic for his left arm early next year, and he's trying to organize a USO tour.

In the meantime, you can find him at the Rivercenter Comedy Club on Friday nights, making everyone laugh.