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The power of laughter: William and Mary students provide outlet for veterans

By Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

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U.S. Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James King, the deputy garrison chaplain at Fort Eustis, Virginia, walked up to his podium with his neck stretched out holding his head high over his white collar adorned with a cross, he shuffled his notes and began to speak into the microphone.

"Chaplains are trained like regular Soldiers ... except without weapons. They don't give us bullets and rifles, but our bibles have full metal jackets," he said to a room filled with U.S. Armed Service veterans and College of William and Mary student volunteers.

King is one of eight local veterans participating in the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) comedy boot camp  that aims to build a healthy outlet for veterans to work through struggles ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression.

"We don't provide therapy; we aren't physicians, but there is something inherently therapeutic about laughter," said Ryan Goss, ASAP comedy advisor. "This is for a group of people who sacrifice so much for us, and I think it's sort of our duty to give back in this fun and creative way."

Whether veterans are looking to cross off a bucket list item or begin a comedy career, ASAP helps them not only achieve their goal, but tackle issues with which they struggle.

For U.S. Air Force veteran Darlean Basuedayva, uniting with fellow ASAP students helped her through a problem she felt only other former Service members could understand.

"It's as though that relationship you had with the military has been severed and you don't quite know how to handle that," said Basuedayva of getting out of the military.  "This class has helped me to connect with other veterans ... some who experienced the same experiences I have, and understand how to deal with things that maybe no therapist or counselor can."

That like-mindedness in the classroom setting not only helps program participants like Basuedayva through issues, but it helps with expressing those issues -- through jokes, said U.S. Army veteran and ASAP comedy instructor, Fred McKinnon.

"I know what they're going through as a veteran in dealing with anxiety and depression; and I know how it can be when you walk up to the microphone," said McKinnon, who works at Fort Eustis. "But the premise of the class is to get them to use their creative thinking in how they can sometimes turn their problems and issues into comedy."

Throughout the program, the students gain instruction not only from fellow prior Service members like McKinnon who perform frequently at local venues, but from their classmates as well. After each performance, the students give feedback and constructive criticism to ensure their comedic battle buddies get a good laugh.

For King, who is working through depression, the group kept him from holding onto troubles that he didn't know how to deal with on his own.

"It's very supportive," said King, of the class that prepares students to perform live at a local comedy club. "We're not trying to outdo each other; we encourage each other ... and give each other ideas to help improve."

"Without this class I would be a problem waiting to happen," King continued. "If I had not gotten help to find avenues to deal with the issues that I'm facing it would still be bottled up inside me. I don't have to put up a wall as much as I learned to be more open and expressive."

No matter the veterans' goals, the fellow participants, facilitators and instructors are all there to make sure the new comedians reach their highest potential not only on stage, but in other aspects of their lives.

"I didn't think the class was going to be so instrumental ... they have helped me to not feel judged and have pushed my confidence," said Basuedayva. "This thing that I'm doing, it takes a lot of courage to do. If I can do this, can you imagine some of the others things that I can do by breaking this barrier of fear. I can do a magnitude of things."

This classes' graduation show is scheduled to take place at the Funny Bone in Virginia Beach at 5 p.m., April 24. For more information and to sign up for the next boot camp session, visit www.asapasap.org/comedy/.
Editor's note: This is part one of a three part series featuring veterans who participate in a local arts program to battle stressors.