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Bobby Henline is the kind of guy who could make the faces on Mount Rushmore grin. He fought on the front lines in Iraq during Desert Storm. After the attacks of Sept. 11, he went back three more times.
“I loved my job,” Bobby says, “but that last tour was a real blast.”
It’s a one-liner, but the story behind it is no laughing matter. By that point Bobby was an Army staff sergeant and didn't have to go on dangerous missions. Yet he did anyway, riding in a convoy one morning with the 82nd Airborne.
“The last thing I remember is drinking coffee and mumbling a prayer to God” as the armored car he was riding led the others out of camp, Bobby recalls. An Iraqi on the terrace of a nearby house watched them go and waited. With his finger on a detonator.
“Our Humvee passed over three or four artillery shells buried beneath the road. He set them off. They blasted a hole five feet wide and two feet deep.”
Everybody in the car was killed except Sgt. Bobby Henline, who stumbled out of the wreck, a human torch. “The man I had replaced in the Humvee came running with a fire extinguisher and put out the flames,” he says. “But my skull was burned to the bone."
More than a third of Bobby’s body was charred. To save his life, doctors kept him in a medically induced coma for two weeks.
He needed 45 surgeries to rebuild his face. “I didn't lose the chin in the blast,” he jokes today. “I just never had one!”
He invites an assembly of middle-school students to laugh at what happened to him. “Did you guys see the remake of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street?’ ”
A couple of kids nod. Others begin to giggle.
"I went and sat in the front row of the theater. When the lights came on and everybody was getting ready to leave, I jumped up and yelled, ‘Sweet dreams, everybody!’ ”
The crowd blasts Bobby with laughter. He beams; beneath his Halloween face, Bobby Henline is no Freddy Krueger. “This is who I am,” he says. “I earned these scars. They’re like tattoos with better stories.”
Humor from horror
Bobby began turning horror into humor at tiny comedy clubs near Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, speaking for all those disfigured veterans who endure whispers and stares.
“You know about skin grafts? I’m a patchwork quilt. Doctors took good skin from my stomach to replace the burnt skin on my head. Now I have to pick lint out of my ear.”
Laughter begins to build again.
“They put my stomach on top of my head!” Booby shouts. “I eat too much, I get a headache!”
Another wave of giggles ripples toward the stage.
“I love the Fourth of July,” Bobby tells them, pacing back and forth. “I go to a fireworks stand and say, ‘Give me that same stuff that you gave me last year. It was great.’ ” He pauses and leans forward, as if whispering in the fireworks seller’s ear: “Have you got a longer fuse?”
Some who undergo an ordeal like his have spirits beyond repair. But Bobby says: “There’s so much of life I have left to enjoy. And to live! I have to go on.”
His wife, Connie, and their three kids found out about his injuries the day before Easter, 2007. “They thought he was dead,” Connie says of the kids. “I told them he was badly injured.”
But for six weeks, the children were not allowed to see their father because of the threat of infection to his exposed skull. A child’s cold could have killed him.
Bobby dreaded what they would think when they finally walked toward him. But daughter Brittany, just 15 at the time, saw past the scars. “You can look in his eyes and tell — that’s your dad,” she says. “He might look a little different, but he jokes about it, so we’re OK with it. It means so much to me that my dad can still laugh.”
Handshakes and hugs
Laughter masks Bobbys pain. “At first, when I looked in the mirror, all I saw was this weird guy,” he recalls. Whose care, he felt, would be too much of a burden for his wife.
But his kids pitched in. Brittany convinced the state of Texas to give her a driver’s license at age 15 so she could do the grocery shopping for siblings McKenzie and Skyler, who were 8 and 9. Even so, there were days Bobby wished he would go to sleep and not wake up.
That has to be a wife’s worst nightmare. “No,” Connie says. She seems stunned by the suggestion. “I’d rather do this again.”
She knows there is someone special beneath those scars. On this night, his audience does too. “I went into a drugstore and filled a basket full of scar remover,” Bobby tells them. “The checker says, ‘Think you've got enough?’ ”
They roar. They stomp. They love him. On a neon-lit evening in Las Vegas, Bobby's great tragedy becomes a triumph.
“My Humvee got blown up by a roadside bomb … four years ago today.” It is a date burned deep in Bobby’s memory; he was the only one of the five soldiers in the armored car that survived that Iraqi bomber. “But I’m now able to go around and help way more people than he’ll ever hurt.”
The audience at Brad Garrett's Comedy Club gives Bobby a standing ovation. After the applause fades, they line up for handshakes and hugs.
Bobby’s voice chokes with emotion. “I made it. Four years to the day. I finally see my dream, what I thought I was here to do, come true.”
But he doesn’t stay serious for long.
“I’m thinking of buying a hearse,” he says. Have some guy drive me home. Pull up to a stoplight. He runs out yelling, ‘He’s alive!’ I pop up and play Frankenstein.”
This from a man who once thought he might as well be dead ... until he made us laugh.
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