By Brady Rhoades
Bobby Henline survived two wars and 48 surgeries and now he’s standing in front of an audience on the Huckabee TV show, telling jokes.
“Halloween is my favorite holiday because I make lots of money at the haunted house,” he says. “I made $50 laying in my neighbor’s yard. I even got a modeling job at the Halloween Super Store.”
Henline, who suffered burns on 40% of his body while fighting in Iraq, is loose, cheerful, wearing a sky-blue blazer, jeans and boots.
Photo: Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bobby Henline, second from right, receives an award at Forward Operating Base Walton, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Henline and four other wounded warriors visited Afghanistan as a part of Operation Proper Exit. (Public domain photo from defenseimagery.mil).
“It took me four tours and an IED to figure out my lucky number is three… I’m a little slow…”
He’s just getting warmed up. He often warns civilians, “I hope you enjoyed that, because it’s going to get darker.”
“They have a hard time laughing at me,” he said. “They eventually come around.”
This is a story about not being afraid of the dark.
Joking As a Way of Coping
Henline, 51, married to wife Connie and a father of four, was wounded while serving with U.S. Army in the 82nd Airborne Division during the Iraq War. The Humvee he was riding in hit an IED. Four other soldiers were killed. Henline’s face and head were burned to the skull. His left hand and forearm below his elbow were damaged so badly amputation was necessary.
After being put into a medically-induced coma, he awakened after two weeks and underwent six months of treatment. Henline has since had several surgeries including dozens of skin grafts and reconstructions.
While hospitalized, Henline, a veteran of the Gulf War who’d re-enlisted after 9/11, goofed around and told jokes as a means of coping. It happens that he had a great aunt who had a “disformed face,” as he describes it.
“It didn’t stop her. I look to her for strength.”
His occupational therapist urged him to attend an open microphone night at a comedy club. Just to satisfy her, he did so. Backstage at his first performance, he was a nervous wreck. 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,” he said.
Henline made his debut on a big a stage in 2009, at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and became a regular at open mic nights at comedy clubs like Hollywood Improv and Laugh Factory. He appeared in the Showtime documentary Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor, as well as Samsara, Surviving Home, MBF: Man’s Best Friend, Shameless and Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy.
‘I Needed That Laugh Today’
He helped found the Bravo748 Military and Law Enforcement Speakers Bureau, and he’s traveled the world as a motivational speaker for the organizations. He formed a charity called Forging Forward with the goal of helping troops, first-responders and their families deal with injuries and traumas. “It’s the best revenge I can get for those four men and their families,” says Henline, referring to his four comrades who were lost in the IED explosion.
He knows what survivors and families are going through; after his injuries and loss, he’d been suicidal. He’d prayed for death thousands of times.
“There have been so many times when a Soldier has come up and said, ‘I needed that laugh today,’” Henline 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…. Sometimes I’m there to remind others that they can go on, and sometimes they help remind me.”
Going from fighting in the Middle East to standup comedy seems unlikely, but this is a story about light, too.
“When you talk about the truth—that’s the best comedy,” he said, which is why he issues lines like, “They took my stomach and put it on top of my head. Now, I pick lint out of my ears.”
He looks mischievous after punchlines, like he’s playing a prank and on the verge of cracking himself up.
There are four people who try to dodge his jokes at every chance, though: his kids. One of his daughters stopped following him on Instagram, where 63,000 followers do think he’s funny.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do next,” she told him.
This year, Henline will host several Forging Forward events at military bases and other sites across the country, including a Big Sky Retreat in Helena, Montana on June 1-4.
Groups of six to eight military personnel and first responders will get the chance to explore outlets via fishing, rafting, horseback riding and photography, outlets that “bring you back to who you are,” Henline said. He keeps the events small so that “Nobody gets lost.”
Forging Forward covers all costs. To donate, visit forgingforward.org.
Henline’s newest outlets are fly fishing and golfing. How do you tie a fly with one hand? Part science, part will. How do you golf? He can’t fully explain it.
Out on the links, shanking, chunking, hitting for a double bogey, just trying to break 100 (which he’s done), Henline does not take out his frustrations on himself. With his trademark sardonic smile, he lets his clubs, or the weather, have it.
“I’ve cursed more in a year and a half of golfing than I ever did in the military,” he laughs.