For retired Army Lt. Col. Robin Johnson, comedy is the best medicine.
It has not only helped her personally heal, comedy is also the focal point of her mission to assist other veterans in their healing and transition. She is the executive producer for Operation HEAL*ARIOUS and founder of the Best Medicine Brigade. HEAL*ARIOUS is produced by Best Medicine Brigade. (Check out her recent appearance on The American Legion Tango Alpha Lima podcast.)
A member of American Legion Post 166 in Goose Creek, S.C., Johnson served 26 years in the Army, did five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and retired in July 2020. She sat down with The American Legion for an interview as Operation HEAL*ARIOUS kicked off its 10-city national tour on April 1 at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio. (A look at the comedians from the first event.)
The American Legion: You're an Army retiree. How did you get yourself involved in comedy?
Johnson: That's a very good question about how I got from combat to comedy. Essentially, I had a struggle. The transition out of the military was hard and I didn't have very good coping skills or a plan at that time. It was during COVID, so I felt very alone. I found a comedy bootcamp class that really cheered me up. I thought, “Well, if this can do this for me, it can do it for other people.” And it just helped me climb out that state of depression and the rest is history. So now we're going to heal every single veteran we can with humor.
The American Legion: How has comedy helped heal you personally?
Johnson: Comedy healed me by helping me reframe my thinking. I was very cynical. I was depressed. I was very angry for whatever reason, I don't know why I was angry. There was something built pent-up inside of me that I just could not get rid of and I was taking it out on my family, actually hurting my marriage. And when I started laughing about the things it was like it all just released, it all just went away, and every time I would do comedy, just a little bit less angry than I was the day before and now I find I have so much more peace.
The American Legion: You made a pretty big leap to creating a whole business and nonprofit centered around comedy for veterans. Tell me about that part of your journey.
Johnson: Well, it started off with Best Medicine Brigade because I thought there aren't very many veterans represented in the comedy industry and that's a shame because I think that the world needs to hear our stories. So often those stories are sad stories or they're on a documentary, but I wanted America to hear our stories with humor and the way that we joke around in the service and I wanted them to enjoy the stories. That was the first thing: How do I get more veterans and military spouses on stages to tell their stories? The second was the healing power of humor — I knew that it was working and I knew how much it did for me — and we had to build some program around it. So it doesn't mean that you have to become a comedian. So our HEAL*ARIOUS programming isn't training you necessarily to be a comedian. It's just like restructuring your mind, cognitive restructuring to see the things that are triggers or stressors for you, to see it in an optimistic light and that in itself helps so many; we've helped over 6,000 veterans with their depression and anxiety just by doing that.
The American Legion: Tonight (April 1) is the first of the 10-city tour. Tell me about it.
Johnson: Best Medicine Brigade is producing this tour, which is actually two five-city tours. We are picking the top comedian from each city. So it's five cities, five comics, five minutes is the model. And we're really excited to be doing the finale at the American Legion Hollywood Post 43, very fitting. And we've had some wonderful partners and sponsors, The American Legion, Jack Daniels and Triple Nickel.
At the conclusion of the tour, the first place winner from each of the 10 cities will go to Hollywood for the grand finale. The top performer from those 10 will be awarded a cash prize of $2,500 and that'll be it, that'll be a wrap.
The American Legion: As a Legionnaire, what does it mean to you that The American Legion is supporting this?
Johnson: Having The American Legion support this and be our partner, is like my life has come full circle. I joined the military because of The American Legion. It was the only social hub in my town, so I grew up listening to the stories of servicemembers and they inspired me to serve. I was a member of Post 444 in New Knoxville, Ohio, for two decades. I just transferred my membership to where I retired to (Goose Creek, S.C.). The American Legion was such an important part of me growing up and why I chose to serve. So I really love it.
I also love that The American Legion is really dedicated to suicide prevention. That me means a lot because I've lost a lot of friends to suicide and we have a Gold Star spouse who's going to be here tonight, who lost her husband to suicide. We can do better and that's why I really wanted to work with The American Legion because it's something we both care about and we're not just talking about it, we're putting action into it.
The American Legion: The American Legion's Be the One campaign is what you referred to. It's our highest priority right now. For veterans, what do you want them to know about Be the One and how it relates to them?
Johnson: The Be the One campaign that The American Legion has now is so compelling and authentic because it really starts with us, with you, with the person to ‘Be the One’ to check on somebody, check on your battle buddy and make sure they're OK. I just love that. It's simple. It's not overcomplicated. It's much more personal. It gives us some accountability and responsibility as veterans to look after one another I'm really proud to be part of The American Legion to do that.”
The American Legion: At the end of the 10-city tour, what would success look like to you?
Johnson: I want more people to know that we have free humor programming that is at their fingertips and they can use it. If they're struggling with depression or anxiety, if they just need a good laugh that it's available to them. I mean really this whole tour was about letting people know we're offering this free programming to them, and it really will help. And it's not to say that traditional therapy isn't great but this is less intimidating in some ways. You can just participate and you don't have to do a whole intake form. It's a little less complicated but also a lot of fun.
The American Legion: Anything we didn't talk about that you want to mention?
Johnson: What I really want people to know is how they can do the humor therapy program. So we have a website, healarious.org, and that is where we post upcoming free sessions. They are mostly virtual, so they can do it from the comfort of their homes in their pajamas, their yoga pants, whatever. So if they go to HEAL*ARIOUS.org for those dates, they can also reach out to me on the website, it's just email@example.com, and we can set up sessions for them. If they're an organization that wants to bring in a lot of people, we also go in person, so we can coordinate that as well.