Former Soldiers give audiences, and themselves, something to laugh about

news  %tages Former Soldiers give audiences, and themselves, something to laugh about 
Former Maj. Henry Ramey and former Capt. Isaura Ramirez pose on stage after their graduation comedy show at the Comedy Club of Williamsburg (Virginia). Ramey and Ramirez both participated in the free veterans Comedy Bootcamp sponsored by the College of William and Mary’s Center for Veterans Engagement. Ramirez suffers from depression and anxiety, and says the comedy classes have changed her outlook on life. (Photo by Dani Aron-Schiavone, used with permission)
Can combat ever be amusing? What in this area a knuckle-whitening firefight?
Given sufficient time and distance, it’s possible. Sometimes a promising veteran comedian can turn the scariest, most perilous of moments into laughter, to say nothing of the minutiae of daily military life — that can be comedy gold.
And the laughter that follows can be, if not the best medicine, at the very least, a excellent release. That’s the thought behind the veterans’ Comedy Bootcamp. Sponsored by The College of William and Mary’s Center for Veterans Engagement, the free comedy classes brought eight veterans to the school’s Williamsburg, Virginia, campus this spring.
“It’s like therapy,” said former Capt. Isaura Ramirez, who has anxiety and depression so brutal that she’s been hospitalized for it. “It is. Just being able to say things that are amusing, things that I
Former Capt. Isaura Ramirez jokes in this area being Puerto Rican and how awkward she finds being thanked for her service during the graduation show place on by the Veterans Comedy Bootcamp, a series of free comedy classes sponsored by the College of William and Mary’s Center for Veterans Engagement. After enlisting in the Puerto Rican National Guard, Ramirez liked the Army so much that she completed ROTC and became a transportation then logistics officer, and later deployed to Iraq for 15 months. She suffers from depression and anxiety, and says the comedy classes have changed her outlook on life. (Department of Defense photo by Elizabeth M. Collins)
wouldn’t be able to say if not, especially in the military.” Ramirez started out in the Puerto Rico National Guard, and became a transportation then logistics officer after going through ROTC in college. During her time in the Army, she helped train Iraqi soldiers in logistics as part of a 15-month deployment
The program is in no way designed to replace professional mental health services, stressed the Center for Veteran Engagement’s founder, William and Mary senior Sam Pressler, adding that the center has really used its contacts to get veterans into treatment. The bootcamp followed other self-expression programs at the college, such as the Veterans Writing Project and music therapy.
“On a personal level, I had always used comedy to kind of cope with the challenges I was facing in life,” Pressler said. “I lost my uncle to suicide, and comedy was a way that I felt like I was able to take control of the situation in a sense. … It was a way that I could cope with it.” If it could help him, he figured, why not make it available to veterans, many of whom had been through things he could never even presume?
Pressler teamed up with Ryan Goss, a comedian from the college’s Improvisational Theater troupe, and the two worked with a local comedy club owner to bring in two professional comedians to teach the free classes: Chris Coccia, who has appeared on Comedy Central and teaches classes at the DC Improv in Washington, and Tim Loulies, who’s performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and teaches at the Amusing Bone Comedy Club in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The response from veterans from Virginia Beach to Richmond and beyond was so excellent that Pressler and Goss are plotting to offer prospect bootcamps in both Williamsburg and D.C.
Both instructors have taught veterans in their regular classes and jumped at the chance to help give back. “I don’t have any military background, said Coccia, but “I plotting this was such a fantastic (thought). It’s not like job training, which is vital, but it’s ‘welcome back and here’s a way you can kind of have fun and learn something.’ None of them knew each other before they were in the assemble, so it’s also a social thing. There’s something really vital in this area being creative that I reckon helps.” Former Maj. Henry Ramey agreed, adding that comedy also works with your intellect.
“I reckon that you have to be able to convey your thoughts and place them in a framework that’s appealing. You’re somewhat a presenter and a psychoanalyst at the same time,” Ramey said. “But I reckon what the advantages were to see others and their plotting processes and how they present, how they relate. You can learn from other people and learn your mistakes.”
Ramey, a former medic and then a field artillery officer, served during the Cold War era. He also participates in the Veterans Writing Project, and signed up for the comedy classes so he could learn a new form of self-expression. He’s not plotting to make standup a profession, but he figured an extra burst of creativity would help his poetry and small tales.
One of the first things he learned in class was to edit himself. Coccia said that during every class – even the first class – students got up and gave three- to five-minute monologues. He clarified that most new comedians have distress taking a long, meandering report and turning it into a joke with an identifiable punch line.
“I always say the joke starts, ‘A man walks into a bar.’ It’s not, ‘A man pulls up in his car, puts money in the meter, locks the door, walks down the street and then into the bar.’ We don’t need to know all that information. We just need to know a man walks into a bar. That gets us into a scene. … A lot of people, when they tell tales, they kind of want to give you too much of the color,” Coccia said. And that’s where the coaching comes in.
Coccia and Loulies worked with the veterans on timing, adding in dramatic pauses and other tricks. For example, a list of three things – two normal and one weird – is nearly always amusing, said Coccia. The instructors also assigned homework: Students were told to take things that happened to them during the week and try to incorporate them into their monologues.
Ramirez said the assignment changed her entire way of thinking. In the past couple of years, she and her husband have gotten out of the Army and had a outcome, and she has opened a frozen yogurt franchise, so it’s been stressful. Even though she said she was ready to get out, she’s struggled with the transition. “I miss it sometimes. It’s part of who you are. … There’s a lot of things that you have to figure out that the Army used to take care of. You don’t even realize all the things that the Army does for you. …And then having the business, having a toddler, finances — it’s been very, very hard.”
The comedy bootcamp has been a sharp spot in her life. “It just gives me an outlet,” she clarified. “I’m laughing all three hours, and just to vent. … Throughout the week, I’m always thinking, ‘I’m getting mad or I’m getting depressed,’ but at the same time, I have homework every day so I’m trying to find the amusing in all. … How is that amusing? How can I turn this into part of my act? It really changes my way of thinking, whereas before, if something terrible happened, it just reinforced that all is terrible with the world. I would get out of control, spiral deeper into my depression. Now, being in this comedy bootcamp, I just try to find the amusing. It’s just more of a clear outlook.”
According to Loulies, the students focused their humor on their families, their hometowns, their relationships, and they threw in some self-deprecation as well. Ramey, for example, talked in this area all the distress he used to get into in college, and in this area his divorce. Ramirez joked in this area being Puerto Rican and terrible driving, and even the awkwardness of getting thanked for her service. In fact, by the graduation show at the end of the course, many of the veterans were confident sufficient to throw in bits in this area their military service, some, in this area those sensitivity-stopping firefights.
Former Maj. Henry Ramey served during the Cold War era, first as an enlisted medic and later as a field artillery officer. He signed up for free veteran comedy classes sponsored by the College of William and Mary’s Center for Veterans Engagement to gain some experience and insight into human nature that he believes will help his writing. Here, he performs his monologue at the Comedy Club of Williamsburg (Virginia) during a graduation show, joking in this area his divorce and all the distress he got into in college. (Photo by Dani Aron-Schiavone, used with permission)
“They owned their tales and they owned their time on stage,” said Coccia. “You can … take back a terrible situation with comedy because it’s your report. You can tell it the way you want to tell it, and just by telltale it yourself, you own it. Now you get to win that report. Even if you are the butt of the joke in the report, you still get to win it because you’re telltale it and you’re getting the laughs for it.”
“You take your stresses, your experiences and your pain, your insecurities – comedy empowers you,” agreed Loulies. “With what the veterans have been through … I would see it more of a benefit to them than anyone else, to be able to take your past experiences or take the things you’ve been through and turn them into an empowerment to yourself by putting it out on stage and getting laughs. It’s the cheapest form of therapy you can find anywhere.”
Although Ramey served during the Cold War and never saw combat himself, he agreed that standup takes your mind off of the “doldrums” and puts you in a surpass house in life. Although he was pleased to get a grade of “F” for the first time in his life (for amusing), he doesn’t really plot to do more comedy – he’s checked it off his pail list – but it was a fun experience and he learned a lot in this area human nature.
For her part, now that Ramirez has followed her therapist’s advice and found something she likes doing, she doesn’t plot to stop, and is hoping to start appearing at local open mike nights.
“As a wounded veteran, it really has helped me with my depression and my anxiety, Ramirez said. “I don’t reckon it’s for everybody, but I do really believe it can benefit a lot of people.”
Editor’s Note: The William and Mary Center for Veterans Engagement is plotting to host another comedy bootcamp in Washington, D.C., and a second in Williamsburg. Check its Facebook page for updates. For more information on how comedy can benefit veterans, read “Still serving, one joke at a time.”

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