BALTIMORE, Md. - A pair of improvised explosive devices changed the lives of Maryland veterans Joe Kashnow and Steve Rice in 2003. The roadside bombs took a leg from both former soldiers—but the bombs did not take their sense of humor.
Kashnow and Rice are two of the stars of the documentary "Comedy Warriors," which coupled five severely wounded servicemen with professional comedians to explore the concept of healing through humor.
"If you can laugh at something, that's the first step in moving on," director John Wager said. "They deserve to move on."
The comedians—Lewis Black, B.J. Novak, Zach Galifianakis, Bob Saget, Mark Brazill, Bob Nickman and Kevin Rooney—coached the veterans through a once-in-a-lifetime comedy workshop. The "warriors" used their harrowing experiences as material for their acts.
"They're taking tragedy and spinning it into something they can laugh about," Wager said. "Our main thing to do was to raise awareness of what they're going through."
Joe Kashnow was on a routine escort mission outside of Taji, just north of Baghdad, Iraq back in 2003. He was traveling with an empty cargo transport to buy gym equipment.
"As non-combative as it gets—I was blown up on a shopping trip," Kashnow said.
The 35-year-old retired Army sergeant lost the use of his right foot on Sept. 17, 2003.
"They managed to physically save it," Kashnow said. "They got the blood flow working. They did a bone graft that healed reasonably well. But I had no function in my leg. There was no muscle control at all."
After two excruciatingly painful years, the decision was made to amputate the foot entirely on Feb. 7, 2005.
"It's been 10 years," Kashnow said. "I can't remember what it's like to walk without a limp. I find it very difficult to remember who I was before I was in combat and got hurt and changed."
Flash forward to October 27, 2013. Kashnow briskly made his way to a makeshift stage in the sports bar for the standup contest "30 Comics and 1 Cup." And before a standing room only audience, the decorated military veteran removed his prosthetic foot and began, to borrow his words, "shake his stump" in the faces of the judges, which included Baltimore's Mickey Cucchiella.
"I can't believe I'm actually going to do this," Kashnow said to himself. "I had most of it planned out ahead of time. …It was the train wreck that it was supposed to be."
Standup comedy was something Kashnow said he took an interest in during his mid 20s. When he was approached by Wager to star in the documentary, he took the initiative and started trying out new material. In 2012, Kashnow entered and won a standup comedy competition at Magooby's Joke House in Timonium drawing from experiences during his time in the military.
"I'm very proud of my service. I got to do a lot of things that a lot of people don't get to do. I got to see a lot of things that most people don't have a chance to see. Although in fairness of all the years of Morphine, Demerol and Percocet, much of what I saw was a pure figments of my imagination," Kashnow said hearkening to his recovery. … "I honestly think that my time in Iraq was some of the greatest experiences of my life. I had a blast. Or to put it into a young person's vernacular, it was da-bomb."
His act was punctuated by awkward pauses followed by raucous laughter.
The part about his spotty memory, however, is the sad truth.
"I'm fully convinced the years of narcotic treatment have wrecked my memory… I'd lose my foot if it wasn't securely strapped to my knee," he said.
Retired first lieutenant and military police officer Steve Rice fully understands Kashnow's pain and his sense of humor. The IEDs took Kashnow's right leg and Rice's left leg in separate bombings -- both just outside of Baghdad, both in 2003. They both spent months in recovery before deciding to "end the pain" by undergoing the amputation surgery. Rice underwent 19 surgeries in an attempt to salvage his mangled foot.
"It's very true that humor has to be a piece of the human process," Rice said. "Anyone who has ever been to Walter Reed [Military Medical Center] has seen that every day."
Rice, an Arnold, Md., resident, was more of an office cut-up who never gave serious thought to standup comedy before he was approached for "Comedy Warriors."
"But I never thought it would lead to anything," Rice said.
He courted his future wife by hobbling around the office—within the Department of Defense—asking her if she'd seen his leg.
"It's kind of a demented way of meeting someone, but we're married now and she's pregnant again so it worked," Rice said.
Who knew employees within the Department of Defense had a sense of humor.
"They really don't," Rice said.
Rice said reactions to the documentary, which has won a handful of awards at film festivals across the country, have been positive, especially for injured service members.
"It helps people ask more questions of veterans," Rice said. "I truly do believe that it's going to help people get over the miserable part of serving."
"It's changed a part of me," Rice said, recalling what audience members have said about the film.
The idea for the documentary came to Wager in Aug. 2010 after a spell working with the Wounded Warrior Project. Filming began at the end of 2011 and wrapped in Aug. 2012. The film completed the editing process in April 2013 and has since made its way around the independent film festival circuit.
"The movie is about the journey," Wager, the director and producer of Galileo Media Arts, said.
Although the documentary refrains from steering into a political commentary over the atrocities of war, the goal was still to raise awareness for wounded veterans who today more often than not struggle to assimilate back into civilian culture.
"The government doesn't know what to do with wounded service members," Wager said. "The suicide rate for vets coming home is surpassing the killed in battle rate… That blows my mind that that can happen."
"You're capable of doing anything. Hopefully laughter and humor can help the process along," Wager continued. "I hope people take away the fact that they're a little more aware of what these guys are going through."
Comedy Warriors will air on Showtime on Dec. 5 at 8 p.m., according to the Showtime website.
Studies have both shown and debunked that positive thinking can actually have an effect on a person's ability to self-heal. Dr. Lissa Rankin attempted to clear that up for Psychology Today.
But Kashnow explains it a little more simply, and from the perspective of someone who has lived it.
"A good attitude will certainly help get past anything you're facing," he said. "Now I'm not saying that a positive attitude will make everything turn up roses and if you think nicely you can beat cancer. Because you can't… But it certainly will help."
And to his fellow servicemen who on this Veterans Day may still be struggling, coping with a traumatic injury, he offered the following advice:
"It gets better. There's hope. Don't give up. Don't get overly frustrated," he said. "I think one of the big things that you have to actively defend against is the pity party that you can throw yourself. Keep yourself from getting sucked into the ‘poor me,' ‘why me?' … Certainly there are times when things are very difficult and that may be a perfectly appropriate thing to say. But you need to limit that. You need to really ration out your own pity."
"You need to treat it as real," he continued. You can't just brush it under the rug. But you can't let it overwhelm you. You can't let it define you. I'm an amputee comic. But I'm not defined as an amputee. I'll make my comedy bit about being an amputee but I won't let it rule my world."