By Donna Miles

Thom Tran resorted to the same crutches some returning combat veterans turn to as they deal with the scars of war: prescription drugs, drinking binges and other extreme behaviors. But nothing restored the once-carefree young man who deployed to Iraq in March 2003.

“I was a happy kid who came home from Iraq angry and depressed and bitter,” Tran said. His blood pressure had skyrocketed so high his VA doctor in Buffalo, New York, feared he was on the verge of a heart attack.

Urging Tran to calm himself, his doctor asked what would prove to be a life-changing question: “When was the last time that you relaxed or enjoyed something—or simply laughed?”

It had been a long, long time, Tran acknowledged. Before his year in Iraq as a communications sergeant for a special operations unit. Before a sniper’s bullet hit him in the back of the head four days into his deployment. Before a roadside bomb took out his buddy just two weeks before they were to return home. Before he was medically separated from the Army he loved. Before he tried to go on with his life as if nothing had ever happened.

Tran knew it wasn’t working.

From left to right, military veterans Tom Irwin, Jose Sarduy and Thom Tran, all members of The GIs of Comedy, perform at Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York, in 2013. | Photo credit The GIs of Comedy

Flash forward 12 years, and he embodies the adage that laughter can be the best medicine. He took his doctor’s warning to heart, ultimately transforming his own life and giving hope and inspiration to thousands of service members, veterans and their families.

He founded GIs of Comedy, an all-veteran group of professional comedians committed to healing combat veterans one belly laugh at a time.

The troupe spent the past five years touring the United States and 18 other countries, returning recently from an Armed Forces Entertainment tour that had U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan rolling in the aisles. The comics draw on universal experiences that any audience can enjoy. But what makes them stand apart is that all wore or continue to wear the uniform, and they understand what it means to serve.

Like Tran, Tom Irwin and Ralph Figueroa served in the Army. Eljaye Montenegro wore Air Force blue. Key Lewis is a Navy veteran. Two members maintain their military affiliations: Major Jody Fuller is an Army Reservist and Major Jose Sarduy is an Air Force Reserve flight instructor. Other veterans have entertained with the troupe over the years.

Drawing on their military experiences, they find the funny side of the everyday aspects of service life—the food, the scratchy GI-issued soap, the long waits for just about everything. Even the time Tran soiled his pants during a firefight.

Applying what Tran calls the simple equation of comedy—tragedy plus time—they even manage to find humor in the horrific.

One of Tran’s most powerful acts features a video of a bullet striking him in the back of his head during a firefight near Nasiriyah.

“People watch this video, and they can see the very real blood coming down my neck,” he said. “I can see across the room that people are wondering how this is going to be funny.”

Tran takes advantage of their unease, delivering an off-color punchline that gets sides splitting. “It’s one of my better jokes,” he said.

The audience howls with laughter during the taping of “The GIs of Comedy: Task Force Funny,” a live stand-up comedy special at Buffalo State College’s Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center. | Photo credit Photo courtesy of The GIs of Comedy

The secret of comedy, Tran said, is catching audiences off guard by delivering the unexpected. “Comedy zigs when you think it is going to zag,” he said.

From his childhood, Tran recognized the deep, transforming power of laughter. “When you have a good belly laugh, you are not thinking about it,” he said. “It’s a natural reaction that comes from your soul.”

Which he said makes it the perfect antidote to post-traumatic stress.

“Combat trauma touches so deeply into your soul that the only thing that is going to combat it is something that equally comes from your soul,” he explained. “There is no doctor, there is no amount of therapy or medication that is going to fix your soul the way a good belly laugh does. It is this natural, deep-down thing that comes from your being.”

For Tran, who worked at a radio station and occasionally emceed at a friend’s comedy club, the transition to standup comedian was almost a natural. At first he’d crack jokes that only he found funny. But he slowly fine-tuned them, sharing stories about his military experiences and getting his audiences to share in the humor.

“I realized how much fun I was having on stage and how much fun other people were having,” he said. “It became therapeutic for me.”

Each time Tran took the stage, he felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders. “This takes the place of all the doctor’s visits and all the drugs,” he said. “If I wasn’t able to laugh, I don’t know where I would be today.”

Tran became a sought-after act at comedy clubs, winning comedy competitions and returning to Iraq on a USO tour to entertain the troops. While performing at a benefit for the Bob Hope USO in Los Angeles, Tran met other gifted comedians who had served in the military. It planted the seed for GIs of Comedy.

Sarduy was among the first comics to join the troupe. He remembers how awestruck he was as a child to see how a standup comedian could captivate an audience. “It made an impression on me very early on that humor was this powerful and amazing thing,” he said.

An Air Force Academy graduate who dreamed of becoming an astronaut, Sarduy loved to regale his friends with other comedian’s jokes. When he gradually began weaving in stories about his own experiences—evoking howls that brought tears to his listeners’ eyes or shot beer out of their noses—he knew he was on to something.

Sarduy devoted himself to writing and delivering comedy and ultimately began working as a full-time comedian. When Tran approached him about the GIs of Comedy, he immediately recognized its potential.

Jose Sarduy performs at Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York, in 2013. | Photo credit The GIs of Comedy

“We know the effect of comedy on regular people, especially people who are having hard times,” Sarduy said. “You increase that by a factor of 100 when you are talking about [the military]. When you tell them stories that they can relate to because of what they went through, it is a bit of a game-changer for them.”

Tran said he’s struck by the outpouring of thanks the GIs of Comedy receive from the troops and veterans they entertain.

One of the most memorable, he said, came from a young private who came to a performance at Fort Riley, Kansas. Just home from Afghanistan, the soldier said he spent most of his time drinking in his barracks and was dragged to the show by his worried roommate.

“He told me he laughed for the first time since getting back from Afghanistan. He said it was the first time he had enjoyed life since getting back,” Tran said.

The GIs of Comedy founder Thom Tran patrols the military-themed stage at Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York, in 2013. | Photo credit The GIs of Comedy

“Being one of those people who when I got home from Iraq couldn’t laugh, couldn’t smile, couldn’t enjoy life—when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you helped me enjoy life for 90 minutes,’ that is the best feeling I can get,” he said. “That is the biggest reward I can get for doing this.”

Even as combat deployments wind down, Sarduy said he sees no end to the need the GIs of Comedy help fill.

“I dream of the day we live in peace, but you have to deal with the world that is. And the world is one that we have to send men and women to fight,” he said. “So as long as they have to fight, I am going to tell them some fart jokes—to try to make things a little better, to remind them that life is worth living, and that this country is totally worth fighting for.”

—Donna Miles, a former American Forces Press Service writer, is a Maryland-based freelance writer. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.