Memorial Day weekend was a somber occasion to remember those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.
This weekend, Operation HEAL*ARIOUS provides therapeutic laughter as a Virginia comedian competes in the America’s Funniest Veterans & Military Spouses contest on Sunday, June 4, in Tacoma, Washington.
“This is our inaugural tour,” chief executive officer Robin “Phoenix” Johnson told WTOP. “HEAL*ARIOUS is brand new, this is our first year, so it’s a big, big, aggressive thing to do a nine-city tour across the country to find America’s Funniest Veterans & Military Spouses. … Five comics do five minutes [each]. First place gets a chance to go to Hollywood.”
Johnson is a retired Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army herself, having served 26 years in the military, including five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. She launched the therapeutic humor nonprofit HEAL*ARIOUS as a pilot program at a Veterans Affairs center and has since helped over 6,000 veterans with PTSD, depression and anxiety.
“When I got out of the military, I found comedy and humor to be really healing for my own PTSD,” Johnson said. “I decided to figure out a way to do two things: (1) give veterans and their spouses an opportunity to tell their stories through comedy … and (2) how do we use this to heal more people? They say laughter is the best medicine.”
Johnson launched the cross-country competition in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, followed by a more recent event at the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse in Arlington, Virginia, won by U.S. Army spouse Gigi Bledsoe.
“She was so authentic and real,” Johnson said. “She makes it effortless. It’s like you’re having a conversation with her. Her delivery style is so natural. It doesn’t feel forced. It’s like you’re talking with her over drinks or dinner.”
Fellow Virginia comedian Valena Metcalfe was disappointed that she didn’t hear about the Arlington contest in time, so she’s now flying to compete in Tacoma, where her military family was previously stationed. Metcalfe currently lives in Triangle, having moved to the D.C. area 26 years ago when her husband, retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Samuel Metcalfe, was stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland.
“I went to submit and they had just closed Arlington and I was like, ‘No, no, no, I still have to do this,'” Metcalfe told WTOP. “I had been performing with Veterans Growing America. I followed their page and they had information on Best Medicine Brigade, which had a HEAL*ARIOUS comedy tour coming up, so I submitted an audition tape. … I was very theatrical [about] just being an army wife, having children and still trying to still fit into clothing.”
After Tacoma, the comedy contest tour will head to:
- San Diego, California;
- San Antonio and Killeen, Texas;
- Charleston, South Carolina;
- Newport News, Virginia; and
- Fayetteville, North Carolina.
The Top 10 finalists will ultimately compete at The Hollywood Post 43 American Legion on Nov. 5 for a grand prize of $2,500.
“I’m super excited to be a local comic representing the DMV with this HEAL*ARIOUS comedy tour,” Metcalfe said. “I’m just over the moon with excitement for this opportunity. … I am just having positive vibes to be able to come back and say, ‘Mom, I’m going to Hollywood’ like ‘American Idol.'”
The timing is perfect, as May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a vital cause for veterans.
“I can’t thank Robin and her team enough for even putting together the HEAL*ARIOUS comedy tour for veterans and military spouses to bring laughter behind the pain, behind the hurt, behind the trauma,” Metcalfe said. “The fact that we can come and bring laughter is just incredible. … Bringing laughter to so many who might not feel like smiling in this day and age is so important. I am prayerful that this tour goes on for years to come.”
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