It was truly a fun day when the Operation Heal*arious comedy tour was held Sept. 15 at American Legion Post 223 in Killeen, Texas.
You might even say it was mandatory.
After all, the emcee was Army 1st Lt. Austin von Letkemann, or better known to his Instagram followers as Mandatory FunDay.
“It’s evolved to become popular and serve as an inspiration to some people,” he said about his Instagram channel that features his comedy videos that poke fun at various parts of the military. “But at the end of the day, I enjoy making people laugh and bringing levity to a frustrating industry at times, which is the military.”
Being a content creator with a following of more than a half million people on Instagram, von Letkemann has dealt with his share of feedback. “You either get thick-skinned or you don’t survive,” he said.
Von Letkemann recalls the first time he published an Instagram clip that gained traction. “It was surprisingly nerve-wracking. I was trying to go viral, get big. And then when it finally happened, I was scared I would get in trouble. But the response overwhelmingly from the military, leadership and even civilians — with no affiliation with the military — was really positive.”
The Best Medicine Brigade is winding down its Operation Heal*arious nationwide tour to find the funniest veterans and military-affiliated family members. At each stop, five comedians perform five-minute sets, which are scored by a panel of judges to determine the winner who will go on to the national finals.
The American Legion is sponsoring the comedy tour as part of its Be the One initiative to reduce the rate of veteran suicide. The comedians know full well that comedy can be part of a way to break down the walls with a veteran who may need assistance with mental health issues.
“There are different lenses that you can see through in different situations,” Von Letkemann said. “You can choose to laugh or you can choose to cry. For those of us who choose to do comedy, we choose to laugh and to make others laugh. My favorite part of Operation Heal*arious and Best Medicine Brigade is that they have weaponized the power of laughter.”
Like many servicemembers and veterans, Von Letkemann has lost buddies to suicide.
“I know more people who have died by suicide than who have died in combat,” he said. “In fact, my story is not unique among our community. Part of ‘being the one’ is being that person who will reach out and be willing to use that skillset to help others. For some of us that is making people laugh. But it doesn’t take that specific skillset to Be the One.”
Post 223 Commander Steven Driscoll says Be the One is an important mission for the 103-year-old post. He recalled some people he lost to suicide including a nephew and friends he served with.
“This is a big deal for the whole post,” said Driscoll, an Army veteran. “It’s huge. It was an honor that they asked us to host. With Be the One, you just have to be there, to listen and to pay attention. See a person sitting in the corner, by themselves? Go over and talk to them. That’s being the one. We’re creating a social atmosphere so if someone has been missing for a while, someone else will call them to check up on them.”
Air Force veteran Kim Wadsworth, of Burleson, Texas, won the highly competitive contest in front of a crowd of 250 servicemembers, veterans and family members. Wadsworth, who sports a mohawk hairstyle, focused her act on her experiences as a lesbian, growing up in a small Texas town and her service.
“If Oliver Stone was to direct a really good lesbian war movie, you’re looking at her,” she said. “In the bush.”
Turning her to upbringing, she describes herself as “a friend bologna sandwich wrapped in a Moon Pie, drizzled with Karo Syrup and washed down with Natty Light. That’s right I said Natty Light, cause deep inside, I’m a city girl.”
As an Air Force veteran, Wadsworth said it felt strange to be in a room mostly filled with Army soldiers and veterans. Still, “you can’t hurt my feelings. I still get a disability check for all of these paper cuts.”
Afterward, Wadsworth alluded to the mental health issues that many veterans and servicemembers are going through.
“This win means so much in so many ways!” she said. “It solidifies that my push to grow as a comedian is starting to get noticed! But more importantly, just being able to watch people that are going through some sort of pain or trauma laugh and enjoy themselves is a feeling that gets deep in my soul. Laughter bridges so many societal gaps and I am truly excited and honored to be a part of the ride.”
Wadsworth now advances to the finals with nine other comedians. One group of five will compete for a championship in Los Angeles on Nov. 4 while the others will square off to determine another champion in Las Vegas on Nov. 9.