Veterans find healing, camaraderie in comedy

Chris Karwoski, you’re going to Hollywood. And that actually is a laughing matter.

An Army veteran from Dayton, Ohio, Karwoski won the inaugural Operation HEAL*ARIOUS tour stop, which set out to find the top veterans and military spouses who are comedians. He was selected by a panel of three comics acting as judges April 1 at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio.

A self-admitted class clown, Karwoski didn’t think of comedy as a career until another soldier suggested it during a deployment. His style of comedy is “funny, general observational and some satire here and there.”

Karwoski says veterans really connect with the humor, especially the shared experiences.

“Basic training was fun; usually we would wake in the morning and they would punch us in the face,” he said. “If you could make the drill sergeants laugh, that was your ticket in. They wouldn’t pester you as much if you could be the funny guy. It was a hard line to walk but I was usually always good at it so they awarded me Best Soldier Ever.”

The tour is actually two five-city tours. At each city, five comedians will get five-minute sets. Karwoski and the other winners at each stop will compete at the finale at American Legion Hollywood Post 43 in November. The American Legion is among the sponsors of the tour, which is produced by Best Medicine Brigade (BMB).

Robin Johnson, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, started both BMB and Operation HEAL*ARIOUS after she found healing through comedy. Johnson, a member of American Legion Post 166 in Goose Creek, S.C., said she struggled with her transition out of the military.

“I didn't have very good coping skills or a plan at that time,” she admitted in this Q&Awith The American Legion. “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.’ So now we're going to heal every single veteran we can with humor.”

Ashley Gutermuth is a stand-up comedian, spouse of an Air Force pilot and co-host of The American Legion Tango Alpha Lima podcast. She was the headliner for the first Operation HEAL*ARIOUS tour stop.

“That’s the only thing I value in life — humor,” Gutermuth said. “That’s why I think this tour is so cool, finding ways to teach people how to become comedians instead of just winging it on your own.”

She expressed appreciation for The American Legion’s sponsorship role.

“First of all, The American Legion is near and dear to my heart,” said Gutermuth, a member of the American Legion Auxiliary. “It’s important for The American Legion to support this project because we have the Be the One program where we are trying to stop suicide. If you take something bad that happened to you and you turn it into a piece of art, or a joke, it gives it a new life. And then it can give you and others joy.”

Andy Malecki served in the Army and reserves for 14 years. Turning to comedy was the spark he needed to smooth out his transition.

“The camaraderie was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to get into comedy,” he said. “Meeting other like-minded creatives who are veterans with similar life experiences has really been life-changing. It really helped me find my people. After being out of the military and being in the civilian world and not really knowing how to fit in, it was really welcoming and fulfilling.”

During his performance, Karwoski joked about his deployment to Afghanistan. “I get asked a lot about what war is like. If you’ve ever played ‘Call of Duty,’ it’s the exact same thing,” he joked. “Have you ever had too much caffeine but nothing to do? That’s war.”

Highlights from some of the other contestants:

• Malecki deployed for two years to Iraq as a Chinese linguist in a unit called Pacific Vigilance. “A lot of people ask me what a Chinese linguist does in Iraq and I still don’t know,” he said. “You know if you go to a party and your buddy brings a girl that nobody likes? We were that girl that nobody likes.”

• Jeff Norris, who served in the Air Force for 10 years, shared an anecdote about being asked about weapons from a civilian friend. “I’m in the Air Force,” Norris recalled. “I don’t even know where they keep the guns. He said, ‘What if you are at war and you need to shoot the enemy?’ I’m an officer in the Air Force. If I am shooting the enemy, the war’s over and we have lost.”