Published November 16. 2012 4:00AM Updated November 16. 2012 1:11PM
If ever there were a story of humor as therapy or comedy as a saving grace, this is it.
Thom Tran returned in 2004 from Iraq, where he specialized in small unit and tactical communications under the U.S. Army's Special Operations Command. During that time, he was shot in the back of the head but recovered. Just before he returned to the States, his roommate was killed by an IED.
Tran managed to hold himself together while in Iraq, but when he returned stateside, he battled post-combat trauma.
"I literally spent the first year home - and I'm not proud of it - drunk and in a blur. ... I didn't smile or laugh for the better part of 2004 and into 2005," he says.
He was only in his mid-20s when he had a heart attack. The doctor at the VA hospital told him, simply, that he if he didn't relax, he'd have another heart attack before he turned 30. Yet, none of the therapy or counseling or medications helped.
Tran tried other things - going back to the gym and experimenting with creative outlets like starting a rock band.
And he did standup comedy. It was something he always loved but never thought he could do. It turned out that not only could he do standup well, but it provided him with something invaluable.
"The only thing, to this day, that helps me relieve this stress is getting onstage and telling jokes," Tran says.
He began pursuing standup in earnest. He wanted to bring comedy to soldiers who are still deployed, and he did a tour for the troops in Iraq and Kuwait in 2008. He was named the USO's "Funniest Service Member" at a Bob Hope USO benefit in 2009.
In 2010, Tran formed a group dubbed the GIs of Comedy. They've been profiled by CNN, CBS, Fox and the Associated Press. And they're coming to the Garde Arts Center Sunday.
Along with Tran, the GIs of Comedy features Jose Sarduy, who is still an active member of the Air Force Reserve; Will C., a veteran of three branches of the military - Air Force, Army and Marines; and Tom Irwin, who was in the Army.
Tran, Sarduy and Will C. gathered for a phone interview during a Buffalo stop earlier this week.
The GIs of Comedy are on a 14-state, 20-plus-show tour. It includes 12 Army installations, with a few cities like New London in between. It's the result of the Pentagon and Army Entertainment asking the group to tour the country for the troops.
As for how military and civilian audiences compare, Sarduy says, "Military audiences are like (he affects an aggressive, drill-sergeant voice) 'You will have a good time!' 'Yes, sir!' They don't always have fun, but, when they do, it's mandatory."
Some things have to be tweaked for civilian audiences - acronyms have to be explained, for instance. But otherwise, as Will C. succinctly puts it, funny is funny. Of course, it helps that the comics here know what the troops in a military audience have gone through.
"Nobody in my mind is going to relate to a bunch of 19-year-old door-kickers better than a bunch of guys who have been on the ground, kicking down doors," Tran says.
Will C. remembers being on the other side of the military-comedian equation - being in the audience - when he was serving.
"I liked it, and I'll be honest with you - it lets you just really forget about being where you're at for the time being. ... It feels like you're back at home for a minute," he says.
It's just as rewarding for the comics. Tran has said that the only thing that feels like jumping out of a plane is getting up onstage with new material.
Will C., who jokes about his weight, says, "I can't compare anything to the feeling I have when you get onstage and you've rocked it in front of an audience. It's the most amazing feeling. The only thing I could maybe compare it to is an all-you-can-eat buffet."
Folks might first look at the moniker GIs of Comedy and think: oxymoron. Tran says, though, "Crazy, stupid, silly things happen in combat. You have to have a sense of humor or else you're going to snap."
Tran gives an example: he got to Iraq on a Sunday. He was shot in the back of the head on Thursday.
"If it weren't for the fact that I had a twisted, absolutely demented sense of humor, I probably would have snapped and lost it," he says.
Tran says the tradition of dark humor among soldiers goes back to the Civil War and to the Revolutionary War. Men sat around, telling stories and jokes to teach other.
"I mean, every story I've heard at a VFW post has that grain of truth to it, but then it gets stupid and ridiculous because that's how you have to look at the situation or else you're going to crush your own soul," Trans says. "So we just take that and bring it onstage for everybody, not just the troops."