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From Gold Coast Film Fest: 'Comedy Warriors' showcases healing power of humor

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["Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor' is airing December 5 on cable TV}

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They've been through hell and back, live with pain and permanent disfigurement, and have struggled with finding their place back in civilian society. Who would imagine that the way back for five wounded warriors would be Stand Up Comedy?

Bobby Henline was on his fourth tour in Iraq when his Humvee was bombed. The fourth tour was probably a mistake, he jokes. Badly burned and permanently disfigured, he gets on stage, takes a long look around the audience and says, "You should have seen the other guy." And so the wounded warrior begins his routine and new career as a Stand Up Comedian.

Joe Kashnow, who lost a leg to an IED in Iraq, jokes that as a Jew he has a ‘leg up’ in the comedy world. "I zigged when I should have zagged and got sent home for not getting along with flying debris."

Their journey from the battlefield to the hospital to the stage is the subject of "Comedy Warriors: Healing through Humor," which won the Best Documentary award at the Gold Coast International Film Festival, held in North Hempstead, Long Island, Oct. 22-28, 2013.

The film follows five of the wounded warriors who were given the opportunity to be mentored by professional comedy writers and A-List comedians, all leading up to a one-night stand at a major Los Angeles comedy club. For all five, it was not just life-changing, but life-affirming, and proved inspirational for many veterans who have come home from the wars with permanent scars.

The film charts their progress moving from neophytes with an uncanny ability to find humor in their situation, as they work with professional comedy writers and A-List comedians: Zach Galifianakis ("The Hangover"), Bob Saget ("Full House"), B.J. Novak ("The Office"), Lewis Black ("Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil"), and Bernadette Luckett who came out of comedy retirement to help them find their voice and perform their own personal stand-up comedy routines.

Produced and directed by John Wager, produced by Ray Reo and co-produced by Bernadette Luckett, Comedy Warriors is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization; and is also supported by Wounded Warrior Project.

You see that by sharing their stories and laughing about their struggles with the audience, their emotional pain is lifted. The Comedy Warriors learn to disarm the stares, making both themselves and others more comfortable.

The experience isn't just transformative for the five Comedy Warriors, but for veterans who see how they are able to stand on stage and be accepted by an audience, so that they can become more comfortable with their circumstance as well.

The theme of triumph over obstacles drives the film, as the Comedy Warriors share their darkest moments (Joe confesses that at his low point, he contemplated suicide), and then find a way to use humor to restore a sense of purpose, direction, fulfillment and joy to their lives.

You get to know each of the Comedy Warriors personally. The film follows their progress - into their hospital rooms, their homes where you meet their families. You get to see how they work with their mentors to develop their routines and how this challenge of coming up with material and performing distracts them and gives them something positive to focus on besides their pain and loss, as well as a different perspective. It is stunning to witness how they each draw upon the courage they brought with them into battle, to meet this new challenge.

"I started laughing at my situation when I was laying on the side of the road in Iraq, after they treated for shock," Joe said, during the Q&A that followed the screening when asked how they managed to get the courage to laugh and to get up on stage. "I used to get shot at for a living, so telling a bad joke is embarrassing but not so bad."

Bobby Henline was a veteran of Desert Storm by the age of 19. He was inspired to re-enlist in the Army after the September 11, 2001 attacks. On his fourth tour in Iraq, April 7, 2007, Bobby’s Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb just north of Bagdad. Of the five men in the vehicle, Bobby was the only survivor. He was burned over 38% of his body and his head was burned to the skull. He spent six months in the hospital fighting for his life, and within two years, his left hand was amputated. "In retrospect," he jokes with characteristic understatement, "the fourth tour was probably a mistake."

During one of his laughter-filled rehabilitation sessions, Bobby’s occupational therapist made him pinky swear that he would try stand-up comedy. Shortly after, the “Well-Done Comedian” was born at an open mic night at a comedy club.

When Bobby got an email inviting him to be part of the Comedy Warriors' film, he jumped at the chance to work with pros.

"I believe that God kept me alive for a reason and that my mission is to help create awareness for burn survivors, to inspire people to live life to the fullest, and to heal others through my story and laughter," says Bobby who lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife Connie and their four children. He now performs regularly all over the U.S.

Bobby's kids were 9, 10 and 15 when got hurt. His daughter says, "He's still the same person, inside."

"I forget what I look like," Bobby says in a scene in the movie where he is driving to the mall, saying that when he dreams, he is the person he was before his injury. "Then I get out of the car." He is momentarily taken aback by the shocked looks he gets, which brings him back to his present-day reality. So he waves a friendly wave, and uses humor, and thoroughly disarms people with his charm and ease.

Joe Kashnow served in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division from April until September 2003, when he was wounded by a road-side bomb. His injury led to 18 months of surgery and eventually, to the amputation of his right leg below the knee.

Joe says he was always funny and leaped at the chance to be part of the Comedy Warriors project. He didn't want his first time on stage to be for the movie. In January 2012, he performed for the first time at an open mic night at Baltimore’s Magooby’s Joke House, where he has now won the new talent showcase twice in a row. He has performed on several stages including Baltimore, Dallas, LA, and was a headliner at the Chicago Laugh Factory’s Grand Opening Celebration.

"I wanted to show people that it’s okay to laugh at someone with a disability, and to show that whatever adversity one may face in life, it can be overcome with a positive attitude and a good joke."

During the Q&A which followed the screening of the film at the Gold Coast International Film Festival, Joe reflected that both his kids were born after his injury "They didn’t know me before, so this is normal. I had to explain to my 7 year old that when he grows up he probably won’t have to take his foot off… He was bummed out, he thought that was part of growing up."

The documentary follows three other Comedy Warriors who were selected to the program:

Rob Jones grew up on a farm in the small town of Lovettsville, Virginia and joined the Marine Corps Reserve as a combat engineer, training in the use of explosives and the detection of buried IEDs and weapons caches. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, and while clearing a high risk IED area, was wounded by that very IED he had been looking for. The injury resulted in double above knee amputations of both legs (you see him in the hospital, where is irrepressible humor actually caused concern among the staff).

Fitted with prosthetics at Walter Reed Medical Center, he worked hard to learn how to walk, ride an upright cycle and run. He became interested in rowing and enjoyed it so much that he went on to win a bronze medal in the mixed double scull in the 2012 Paralympics in London. Showing a natural predisposition to comedy, Rob challenged himself during the shooting of "Comedy Warriors" (much to the producers’ surprise) by performing new material at every rehearsal. This fall, he is cycling 5400 miles from Maine to Los Angeles to raise money to help wounded warrior charities (robjonesjourney.com).

Darisse Smith grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and credits her older brother who tortured her as a child, for making her tough and preparing her for her future career as an Army Captain. She became an OH 58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter pilot, but the poor ergonomic design of the seat, she says, caused her to suffer permanent, painful nerve damage to her left leg. Medically discharged in March 2007, after a plethora of medical and alternative treatments for pain management, she was finally implanted with a Spinal Cord Stimulator which she operates with a remote control to block the pain signal between her leg and her brain.

She was able to retain her sense of humor throughout her long struggles with pain, and was able to use that experience to transition quickly into performing standup. She is the only Comedy Warrior who went through the filming of the documentary while pregnant (she gave birth to a baby boy) and has become a real standup comedian. She also has become an advocate for others suffering from chronic pain and does motivational speaking through the American Pain Foundation, The Wounded Warrior Project, and Boston Scientific Corporation.

Steve Rice, a retired US Army 1st Lieutenant, broke into comedy after literally being blown up in Iraq in 2003, which resulted in the loss of his left leg below the knee. Applying for a slot in the ‘Comedy Warriors – Healing Through Humor’ documentary, he found comedy a great outlet for his sharp and twisted sense of humor. After two years of intensive rehabilitation, Rice, a native of Alton, IL, who is married with one young daughter and now lives in Annapolis, MD, became a federal agent for the US Government.

"Steve has a job. That sucks," Bobby jokes.

"Comedians use words like 'he killed'," said Jeffrey Gurian, a comedy writer, comedian, and the head of live comedy programming for the Gold Coast festival, during the panel discussion which followed the screening. "You have to be brave to be in comedy. It's hard to break into the business, but I'm sure there are easier ways than what these guys did."

Both Bobby and Joe have kept with the comedy, and say they are broadening their material that goes beyond their war experience and injury. they have performed for troops

"Joe and I would love to go to Afghanistan – if anyone has the frequent flyer miles," Bobby jokes.

In the audience at the BowTie Cinema in Great Neck for the screening were about a dozen vets.

Bernadette Luckett said she came out of comedy retirement to work with the Comedy Warriors. "I knew Ray Reo from doing standup 17 years ago. I said I would do it, and once I met these guys, I fell in love with them and the project. I volunteer at the VA. And I started doing comedy again.

Funding to make a movie is always difficult. "It cost us an arm and a leg," Bobby pipes up.

Wager said, "In the beginning, Ray and I were using credit cards; then the Wounded Warrior project sponsored travel; then some business people in area put on a major golf tournament that raised $250,000. We spent every dime."

Wager said that the producers are negotiating for the film to be aired on TV in December.

The movie - and the Comedy Warriors program - was a one-shot, but the success of the process in helping veterans cope with their injuries is encouraging some thought of how to replicate the program, perhaps as workshops in conjunction with art centers or local comedy clubs.

"We set out to make one movie, we don’t know," said Wager. "It's a good question – will see where goes – a good premise."

"We are losing more veterans today to suicide than any other cause, 22/day," Wager said. "The suicide rate has surpassed the number killed in battle.

"If we can reach out to some of them, to get the assistance they need, it is more than worthwhile."

"Comedy Warriors" has a serious message at a time when tens of thousands of veterans have returned from the battlefield to a perpetual war: that comedy is a healing force. It provided these people with an outlet for their feelings, a distraction from their problems, and a new way of being productive and fulfilled. More so, by being able to stand up on stage for everyone to see and to laugh and make other people feel comfortable and laugh, they provide an inspiration to other wounded veterans, letting them know it is okay. They are visible and accepted.

Comedy Warriors' association with Fractured Atlas enables people to give a tax-deductible 501c3 donation. Visit www.comedywarriors.com.

["Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor' is airing December 5 on cable TV; check listings.]

See also:

Gold Coast Film Fest: 'Mona Lisa: Leonardo's Earlier Version' probes mystery

Notes from Gold Coast Film Fest: Honored actor Paul Sorvino discusses career and slideshow

Karen Rubin, Eclectic Travel Examiner

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