Can comedy heal the wounds of war?
For the better part of a decade, Christopher Croghan was at war.
He deployed to Iraq for the first time in 2007 at the height of the conflict. Returning home, he found it no more peaceful than the desert. Like many in his generation of post-9/11 veterans, Croghan found it almost impossible to speak candidly about what he had lived through — particularly with those closest to him. When faced with the choice between returning to the battlefield and processing at home the trauma he brought back, he repeatedly volunteered for redeployment, even as a soldier for hire after leaving the Marines.
“The only stuff my family knew about the war and me is that every once in a while we would have a celebration, and I would get way too drunk,” Croghan said. “And Id say, Well, youve never shot at a fucking kid, so shut the fuck up.”
Croghans drinking led to a DUI. Both the judge and his therapist at the VA encouraged him to pursue writing, his personal outlet of choice. One day, however, a slightly adjacent program crossed the desk of Croghans therapist — the Armed Services Arts Partnership, a nonprofit that teaches creative- and performing-arts classes for veterans and military families. ASAPs mission is to forge “a new path for veterans to reintegrate into civilian life, and for our communities to welcome them home.”
Growing up in the shadow of two wars has made millennials keenly aware of the needs of the military veterans | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
Which is how, on a warm evening in May, Croghan came to be standing on a stage at the Drafthouse Comedy Theater on K Street, just a few blocks north of the White House, preparing to deliver a monologue that he had spent the previous six weeks perfecting in a storytelling class with nine other men and women.
Burly and tattooed, Croghan, 32, looks like he should be standing guard as The Rock frantically defuses a bomb in a Michael Bay film. But his story bore little resemblance to the depictions of war that have glutted popular culture in the generation since 9/11. He described the smells of copper and sulfur; nights spent sleeping in boots in anticipation of an ambush; a friend lying in a shallow pool of blood, a reassuring sign he might still be alive. And he spoke, too, of the light-bulb moment in his life when he realized the extent to which his combat experience had alienated him from his family, specifically a younger brother who had idolized Croghan.
The audience that gathered that night was a sympathetic one, made up mostly of friends, family and ASAP alums. But the relationship between the audience and the performers wasnt one of one-way back-patting or reverence. It was one of mutual understanding, or the messy, sometimes emotional attempt to come to it, between civilians and an active-duty military population that constitutes less than 1 percent of the country overall but occupies a central role in both its cultural imagination and civic life. Reaching that hard-to-quantify shared catharsis is ASAPs goal, ideally smoothing a transition from military to civilian life that countless veterans have found alienating at best and dangerously despair-inducing at worst.
“Until I joined the class, I talked about [that experience] two times, and each time I had full breakdowns about it,” Croghan told me afterward. “I hate to use the word safe, but thats what [the class] was. I felt comfortable discussing it with the group we had. … Until that point, Id never done that before.”
Watching the culmination of Croghan and his nine classmates experience from the wings was Sam Pressler, the 25-year-old who started ASAP three years ago while still an undergraduate at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, an afternoons drive south of the capital. Pressler was spurred to enter the sprawling post-9/11 field of veterans nonprofits as the result of a university research project that brought him face-to-face with the sobering realities faced by returning veterans of the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Those realities include a suicide rate more than 20 percent higher than that of the civilian population, according to the most recent study from the Department of Veterans Affairs. That fact was more than academic for Pressler, who had recently dealt with a suicide in his own family. But he was aware as well that veterans experience higher-than-average rates of homelessness, alcoholism and substance abuse, PTSD and other trauma-related disorders. Despite a pervasive “thank you for your service” sentimentality from civilians, veterans across the country face an unfamiliar, not-always-hospitable world upon their exit from the military, as they struggle to replicate the structure or purpose that defined their lives in the service.
“You cant move to a new normal when thats always the reference, your military service,” said Dr. Meredith Kleykamp, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland whose research Pressler drew on while hatching ASAP. “Its hard to move to the next thing when youre always defined by the last thing.”
Moving their students to the next thing, whatever it turns out to be, is Pressler and ASAPs goal. ASAP has served nearly 600 veterans, reaching nearly 15,000 audience members through graduation performances alone. A preliminary report on the programs effectiveness conducted by doctors at Western Carolina University showed some promising signs: a significant increase in commitment, control and self-esteem, as well as decreased stress — no small feat for a demographic that experiences it at a level wildly disproportionate to the civilian population. The idea at the programs core is that the performing arts can serve as a bridge between veterans who would otherwise feel isolated, and civilians who would otherwise be unaware of the human consequences of their civic decision-making.
“Theres a responsibility for these two communities to learn about each other,” said Pressler in a recent interview at ASAPs shared office space in downtown Alexandria. “Trauma is universal. Loss is universal. There are universal elements in the veterans experience that create a level playing field, and you have to create the space to allow that to happen.”
* * *
In the Park View neighborhood in Northwest Washington, the headquarters of Story District, a storytelling instruction group, is nestled between a discount bookstore and a beer garden whose patio is packed each weekend with the millennials doing the citys gentrifying elbow work. A sunny late March morning earlier this year was no exception, as the veterans who made up ASAPs storytelling class filed past the mimosa-sipping revelers into Story Districts working space for their second of six weekend classes. Story District, with roots in the citys 1990s open mic scene, has partnered with ASAP for just over a year, running three classes that put ASAPs students through the paces developing a personal anecdote into a professional-quality, five-to-10-minute Moth Radio Hour-worthy story.
Top left: The Midlands, a popular beer garden in gentrifying north Washington. Top right: An image of President Donald Trump reflected in a window. Bottom left: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. Bottom right: Colony Club, a bar just down the street from the Midlands and Story District | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
The 10 students in attendance that morning, sipping coffee from travel mugs as they sat around a plastic table in the middle of the soothing, sky-blue-painted workspace, composed a group that despite their common background was as experientially and demographically diverse as the country itself. There was Croghan, straight out of modern-warfare central casting, but also Joana Garcia, a middle-aged, retired Navy officer, and Kira Cox, a single mother and an Air Force sergeant stationed at nearby Joint Base Andrews. Most students come to the class by word of mouth, from the recommendation of a fellow veteran or a nonprofit worker, and ASAP collects far more applications than there are spaces available.
Left: Stephanie Garibaldi, left, and Anne Thomas, right, the two instructors of ASAPs most recent storytelling class. Right: Story Districts exterior | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
Stephanie Garibaldi, the Story District instructor who has headed each of ASAPs storytelling classes, led the students in exercises with touchy-feely names like “Pair Share” and “Dream Circle,” where they revealed their personal memories and highest aspirations with near strangers — not exactly the kind of thing people who endured boot camp to become stoic badasses would easily embrace. But that, of course, was precisely the point.
“The biggest thing that surprised me was how well people respond to each other, and how willing they are to open up,” Garibaldi told me. “Its part of any class, they bond and they get to know each other really well by telling their stories, but theres an extra factor with ASAP because theres this reckoning, or understanding, that theyre not alone — that there are people who have gone through the same stuff.”
Kelly Bell, one of the ten graduates of ASAPs most recent storytelling class, celebrates backstage in the green room after his performance | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
One of the activities that day assigned each student an emotion, and asked them to describe the time in their life when they felt it the most intensely. Tyler Strausbaugh, a soft-spoken aspiring stand-up comedian, expressed “doubt” over his decision to enter the military after witnessing the aftermath of a forced suicide bombing. Cox was “amazed” at the birth of her son. Alicia Downs, a former Marine, recounted the time she was “furious” with her husband for recklessly riding off on his bike, leaving her, pregnant with twins, alone on a military base with no way to contact him.
Even at this early stage, the veterans seemed to appreciate the value of a space where they could speak freely about potentially difficult subjects. Mental health resources are available to active-duty service members, but some describe a reluctance to use them, based in a fear that the stigma from a track record of such “problems” could stymie advancement or promotion. “The arts give you this freedom to hold a space for your own authentic narrative in a society that doesnt always leave that space,” said Dani Aron-Schiavone, a former coordinator for ASAP who oversaw the storytelling class. “Especially for veterans.”
Top: The ten members of ASAPs most recent storytelling graduating class, assembled after their performance in May. Bottom left: A certificate of completion for the class, handed off by Christopher Croghan. Bottom right: Class members hands interlinked. Relationships built over the length of ASAPs classes frequently long outlast those six weeks | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
Storytelling is only one of three primary classes that compose ASAPs programming, the other two being an improv class and the “Comedy Bootcamp” that served as the nonprofits first offering. The last is held at the D.C. Improv, a local institution that has hosted giants of the entertainment world like Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Rock. ASAPs most recent comedy class was advised by Michael Garvey, a lanky former Marine and who parlayed his experience in the ASAP program into a burgeoning comedy career alongside his ever-present service dog Liberty.
Garvey works closely with Pressler — the Comedy Bootcamp being near to Presslers heart not only for its place at ASAPs genesis, but because of his own youthful aspiration to become a comedian. Over coffee at the Swings roastery near ASAPs office in Alexandria, Pressler told me a story from his “Saturday Night Live”-obsessed youth, when his father happened to encounter Tina Feys personal trainer at a New York gym. He used that connection to tell her about his sons aspirations as a comedian, and managed to arrange a lunch between the two — the majority of which Pressler then spent asking her questions about his hero, Jimmy Fallon.
The note signed for a young Pressler by “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” star Tina Fey | Sam Pressler
“Dear Sam, good luck in your comedy career,” Fey scrawled onto a piece of notebook paper for the star-struck 10-year-old. “I hope you become the next Jimmy Fallon!”
It didnt turn out that way (although the sleepy-eyed, unassumingly handsome Pressler, a New Jersey native, does resemble current “SNL” star Pete Davidson). Pressler went on to study government and finance at William and Mary, where he founded the universitys Center for Veterans Engagement. Pressler says he was haunted by the death of a friends father in the 9/11 attacks. He puzzled for years, he says, over how Americans could become so disconnected with the global and domestic repercussions of an event so momentous.
So he decided to do something about it. In the spring of his senior year in 2015, Pressler ran the first Comedy Bootcamp in Hampton Roads, Virginia, for a class of 10 veterans that included Garvey. That cohort set a standard for future classes, where relationships between students often outlast the session itself — one student of the original class recently officiated anothers wedding, and one is now an instructor at Hampton Roads. (In addition to D.C., ASAP maintains programs in the region near Presslers alma mater, where roughly 30 percent of the population are veterans or military families — far above the national average of 7 percent.)
Top left: Spencer Sullivan speaks about his fallen comrades in Afghanistan. Top right: Rosemarie Richardson recounts her childhood aspiration to become a Marine. Bottom left: Solomon Robinson-Peck describes a UFO encounter near a desert military base. Bottom right: Kira Cox describes the personal tumult leading to the birth of her son | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
Within a year of its founding, the program blew up, earning coverage everywhere from local news to veteran-focused publications like Task & Purpose to the cover of the Washington Posts Sunday magazine. The number of applications Pressler received began to swell, leading him to create a vetting process that winnows brief essays from hundreds of applicants to a final group of about 10 veterans or military spouses or family members.
To meet the demand, Pressler added the other classes, with improv coming first and then storytelling just within the past year. ASAP also offers a creative writing class led by a rotating crew of professional writers, and classes at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on everything from printmaking to ceramics to collage. What started out as a deeply personal project has transformed into a fledgling nonprofit empire. And it might never have happened if hed stopped to reflect on all that.
“I just … thought itd be a good idea to try out,” Pressler said. “No one else was doing it, so why not me? Its the kind of thing that maybe could only come from the naivete of a 20-year-old.”
Meghan Ogilvie, Dog Tag Bakerys CEO, at their Georgetown location | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
Meghan Ogilvie is the CEO at Dog Tag Bakery, another military-focused nonprofit that triples as a bakery, performance space and unofficial business school for the veterans who take part in its five-month fellowships. “What Sam is doing is amazing, and what is he, like, 19?” she jokingly asked over a nitro cold brew in Dog Tags Americana-kitsch coffee shop space near the Georgetown waterfront. Ogilvie described the symbiotic ways in which D.C.s numerous nonprofits for veterans help one another, and ASAPs unique value in building the interpersonal skills of its students.
“Quite a few of our fellows go through ASAP,” she said. “Its incredibly helpful for them in a setting like this — it gets people out of their comfort zone. Resilience isnt a problem for veterans, theyre fully aware of how to protect themselves. What ASAP does is to help take that wall down.”
* * *
The stories told at ASAPs graduation show in May ran the emotional gamut, from Kira Coxs stark tale of escaping an abusive relationship to a loopy yarn about a roadside UFO sighting to the story of Spencer Sullivan, a former Army cavalry officer, who fought back tears as he recalled informing his men of the deaths of their closest comrades.
“Theres kind of a magical process that happens with these classes,” said Aron-Schiavone, the former ASAP coordinator. “They adjust to match the tone of each others stories — the instructors tell them to speak their emotional truth, and sometimes its heavy, and sometimes that truth is just … funny.”
Top: Kira Cox, one of ASAPs recent storytelling graduates, in the chamber at Joint Base Andrews where she simulates high-altitude conditions and oxygen deprivation for Air Force pilots. Bottom: Each of the 50 states flags fly outside Joint Base Andrews | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
The laughs that peppered even some of the most heart-rending stories were a testament to that insight. Tyler Strausbaugh, an aspiring comedian, spun his experience with a harrowing, but failed, suicide attack in Afghanistan into a wryly funny shaggy dog tale that examined his motivation for joining the Army. Another student recounted how a procession of military doctors failed to recognize a faulty medical device had invaded his organs, causing potentially life-threatening complications. Another related a M*A*S*H-like tale of a Fourth of July barbecue in Bosnia spoiled by the unexpected arrival of a few hopelessly stern Turkish Army officers.
The crowd that night displayed a range of emotion to match, from whooping and hollering as friends or family took the stage to a reverent, earned silence during tales like Sullivans. In the green room afterward, where the class members huddled to debrief with Pressler and the Story District staff, Croghan put it succinctly: “There are a lot of people out here who give a shit.”
Croghans family were among them, including his younger brother David, the disconnect from whom caused Croghan the anguish he described that night. Croghan walked off the stage to an emotional embrace with David, earning a round of applause for what was a remarkably unshowy moment of catharsis. “He basically told me afterward,” Croghan said, “ I knew what was going on, there had to be some stuff going on. He basically said he was really sad you felt like you couldnt be my big brother.”
To hear Croghan tell it, thats been changing. They attended the recent Home Run Derby before the All-Star game, and feedback on the experience from the rest of his family has been universally positive. Not bad for the taciturn Iowa farm family Croghan described, one not exactly in the daily business of personal oversharing. “In a farming family, were into How much work did you put into it?” Croghan said. “They respected that. They thought this had to mean something if it took that much work.”
Christopher Croghan, left, with his brother David, right. Croghan says his experience with ASAP has led to them spending more time together than ever | Mark Peterson/Redux Pictures for POLITICO Magazine
That meaning, and the ability of veterans and civilians alike to recognize it, is what Pressler is counting on as he presses forward with the program. He believes that the disconnect between them isnt just an interpersonal misunderstanding or point of tension, but a civilizational folly, one with potentially dire consequences.
“That disconnect is greater now than it was during Vietnam,” Pressler said. “The draft was sort of an equalizer, but with a volunteer force, now these people are out of sight and out of mind.”
“People dont make the connection, but these issues cut across everything. Its intersectional — mass incarceration, police brutality. … How do we build communities when were so disconnected from each other?”
Its a question that demands an answer in all walks of life, but especially for our service members, who too often exist in the public imaginationeither as uncritically revered patriotic heroes or as objects of our collective pathos. In Presslers mind, programs like ASAPs bridge the gap with reality.
“Comedy is tragedy cloaked in humor,” he said. “But people just telling their stories? Thats the middle pole.”