Through Independence Day, HuffPost Impact is running a series of stories called "Breaking the Roles," highlighting the servicemen and women of our armed forces who don't typically see the media spotlight, and the remarkable work of the USO, who are tireless in their efforts to support all who defend our country.
I spoke with comedian Jeffrey Ross just days after he returned from the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. He had strep throat and a horrible cough, and told me he'd caught "bonnorrhea," the first of many laughs during our 35-minute conversation.
The call was not about his infamous roasts, a new tour or a comedy special, but about his years of work with the USO, volunteer work which, he says, has genuinely changed his outlook.
"I was a very self-centered and big-mouthed comedian," he told me. "Drew Carey and Kathy Kinney [of "The Drew Carey Show"] mentioned it one night and encouraged me to do it. I had a drink and said sure. I spent the next few weeks trying to get out of it."
His hesitation persisted when he read that the UN headquarters in Baghdad had been decimated. This fear didn't go away until he was actually there. What changed his mind was the audience.
"It was fascinating on a creative level to have an audience that was so ready to laugh," he said. "Most of them haven't laughed in a month. They might have been in a gunfight or at a funeral that morning. You're there, confronting what they've gone through, making a human connection, getting laughs which is as natural as sweating or spitting."
As he said this, I couldn't imagine laughing just hours after being on the battle field or disarming a bomb. How could anyone get a laugh out of such a serious situation?
The first joke Ross told me about was a jab at his companion on the first trip, Drew Carey. "Soldiers love Drew Carey because they love blondes with big boobs." As a fan of insult comedy, I didn't even try to suppress a laugh.
Ross on a USO tour in the South after Hurricane Katrina.
"There are no subtleties in a war zone. I think that's why comedy does so well there. It goes right for the gut. So those punchlines start penetrating the bullet-proof vests."
Most changes in attitude happen gradually, but to hear Ross tell it, it seems like he changed overnight. The experiences are not "guilt trips," but among his most enriching performances. "You always feel like you're making an impact," he said.
The stories of individual soldiers, he says, are what really put one's life into perspective. These people are engineers, paratroopers, interrogators, accountants, but more than anything, they're human beings -- and laughter is one of the simplest ways to make that human connection. Even though he barely knows them, Ross can easily be touched by the stories of servicemen and women.
Ross released a documentary DVD in 2005 detailing his trips with the USO called "Patriot Act." Years later, he received a letter from a soldier saying that he recognized a shot of himself laughing on a tank in front of Saddam's palace. The soldier next to him in the film lived only another few days.
"Those stories, unfortunately, are pretty frequent," he said.
After three tours overseas and over 25 performances, Ross is looking forward to another trip this summer. For security reasons, performers really don't know when they'll be called or where they'll be asked to go.
"You get that call when you least expect it. I went to Katrina on 24 hours notice. Drew Carey told us on the first trip to Iraq, 'Anything can happen. Be prepared.'"
Since the early images of Bob Hope entertaining troops overseas, the USO has had a connection to entertainers and providing soldiers with a sense of escape. It's something that Ross has never regretted.
"I don't know if you believe in karma," he said. "But, I gotta think this selfishly, it's good for me too. I always try to tell that to other performers."
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