Veteran Turns Pain into Laughter and Uplifts Others Through Comedy
Army veteran Bobby Henline’s humor goes beyond coping with injuries. His humor uplifts and inspires veterans and civilians alike with a humble touch and a dose of truth.
“When you talk about the truth — that’s the best comedy,” Bobby said.
Bobby’s truth is that he has always found ways to serve others. He enlisted at age 17 and deployed during Desert Storm, then reenlisted after 9/11 out of his desire to continue serving. On April 7, 2007, while in Iraq on his fourth deployment, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated under the vehicle he and four other soldiers were traveling in. Only Bobby survived.
He had burns over 40% of his body. The fire burned down to his skull, and it damaged his eyelids, ears, and the left side of his face. His left hand was so destroyed that he eventually had it removed. He has endured 50 surgeries and skin grafts since the explosion.
Between the physical pain and the survivor’s guilt, there were times when he felt like giving up. “I used to pray to God every day to just let me die because that way I wouldn’t be a burden to my family,” Bobby recalled. “It was a year before I could stop thinking like that. The skin graft on my head took about a year to close. When that finally took and I became more independent, I started thinking more positively.”
Bobby found truthful and candid ways to bring laughter into his life and the lives of those around him. Bringing levity to his situation put himself, and others, at ease.
Today, his talent for turning adversity into joy has earned him respect as a stand-up comedian and motivational speaker. Whether you see him perform on stage or talk with him one-on-one, you might notice that even in the middle of a self-deprecating joke, there is a wise humanity that shines through.
Mind Over Matter and Fun Over Pain
Early in his treatment, Bobby received a visit from fellow veteran Juan Arredondo, then a Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) volunteer at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Juan lost an arm in Iraq after his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Juan eventually became a WWP teammate and kept in touch with Bobby, including him in veteran connection events and ultimately giving him the opportunity to inspire other veterans through camaraderie and humor.
“Bobby always brings motivation to people’s lives,” Juan said. “He’s an inspiration to the staff and patients at the hospital, and he brings joy to those suffering from war wounds. Laughter is his healing. He brings that to the warriors he interacts with.”
While in the hospital’s burn unit, Bobby used his sense of humor. “I would make light of myself, joke with the doctors, nurses, and physical therapists,” Bobby recalled. “After I had my left hand removed, my occupational therapist told me I should try stand-up comedy. She insisted. She nagged me and made me pinky-swear that I would try it.”
Bobby gave in and went to an open mic tryout for a comedy show while he was in Los Angeles for treatment at UCLA’s Operation Mend program for injured veterans. He did not expect the tryout to go well. He just wanted to be able to tell his occupational therapist that he had tried.
“They picked 10 out of 80 people, and they picked me,” Bobby said. For the callback, Bobby needed three minutes of comedy. “I sat in my hotel room panicking because I only had enough material for two minutes.”
Then he remembered he had written a rap in ninth grade — about constipation. “When the warning light came on at the end of two minutes to indicate that I still had one more minute to go, I did my constipated rap.”
After his rap saved the day, Bobby went back home to San Antonio and started writing jokes. He also started performing at open mics in town.
“I never imagined myself doing that before,” Bobby said. “I wasn’t into being on stage. Even in the military, as a sergeant, I didn’t like to teach. But I found that I could make fun of myself, and people laughed.”
From Open Mic Night to Las Vegas
After Bobby had been practicing stand-up comedy for two years, WWP helped steer him toward a filmmaker who was documenting the journeys of five injured veterans breaking into comedy. The film project, “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor,” opened other doors.
For the film, the veterans were paired with seasoned coaches Lewis Black, Bob Saget, B.J. Novak, Zach Galifianakis, and other comedy pros who helped them polish a routine leading up to a live performance.
In addition to receiving advice from experienced comedians, Bobby received calls for acting gigs after the filming wrapped up. He welcomed non-veteran roles that allowed him a little out-of-the-box fun. The TV show Shameless called him. “They hired me to play a bad pyrotechnics guy, it was funny, and I wasn’t playing an injured veteran.”
Eventually, Bobby met actor and comedian Brad Garrett, from Everybody Loves Raymond fame, who owned a comedy club in Las Vegas. A casual invitation turned into a momentous comedy gig and a lasting friendship.
So, on April 7, 2011, four years to the day Bobby survived a fiery explosion in Iraq, he performed the first of three comedy shows in Las Vegas. “I almost broke down on stage,” Bobby said. “Then remembered I’m here to tell jokes. It was hard to believe that after only two years doing comedy, I was playing in Las Vegas.”
More recently, Bobby and other veterans were featured in Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy on Netflix. And while he’s met many other celebrities, Bobby cherishes meeting fellow veterans. He has visited military bases, including some in Iraq, to perform comedy and motivational speaking.
“There have been so many times when a soldier has come up and said, ‘I needed that laugh today,’” Bobby said. “We hug and we cry — then we pretend we were chopping onions together, but I’m a big cry baby, I let it all out.”
Bobby was constantly on the road through 2019 and home only about eight days a month. Then in 2020 venues shut down because of the pandemic. Shows got postponed for a whole year, and Bobby had time to reflect on how far he has come.
Looking Forward to Interactions, Shows, and Being Called ‘BurntPa’
While he’s missed the interaction and camaraderie of meeting other veterans in person during the past year, he’s found other ways to stay connected. Friends suggested he try TikTok, and the emerging social media platform provided an outlet and a lifeline.
“Sometimes I’m there to remind others that they can go on, and sometimes they help remind me,” Bobby said. “Just because I’m on stage doesn’t mean I don’t need help. It got dark during the pandemic, so I made fun of myself on TikTok.”
With over 730,000 followers on TikTok, Bobby stayed active and kept looking forward to new opportunities. “Post-pandemic, I hope to meet most of the people who follow me.”
He remembers how staying connected has helped his long-term healing. He experienced the welcoming of fellow veterans during hospital stays and through WWP veteran events. “The joy of meeting other veterans is that you just start talking and things just come out naturally,” Bobby said.
While the prospect of more in-person events and speaking engagements is exciting, there is one role Bobby is looking forward to more than anything: being a grandpa. And, yes, the burn survivor who calls himself “Well-done Comedian” is teaching his three granddaughters to call him BurntPa. “I even got a license plate ready,” Bobby said.
Learn about connecting with other veterans through WWP events.
Contact: Raquel Rivas – Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.426.9783
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