Hampton VA Medical Center
Hampton Veteran Combats PTSD with Comedy
Hampton, Va. - The packed crowd broke out in a roar of laughter at the Funny Bone in Virginia Beach on the evening of April 24 as William Breckenridge neared the end of his set on stage. In that moment he couldn't help but smile and laugh a little himself because right then he knew he'd done it. He'd turned his eight weeks of Comedy Bootcamp training with the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) and his experience as a Veteran into stand-up comedy fodder for the amusement of strangers. He and 10 other Veterans, service members and military spouses recently completed ASAP’s Comedy Bootcamp sessions. The graduates performed last Sunday evening at the Funny Bone as part of their graduation from the program.
Breckenridge and his classmates attended sessions from Noon to 3:00 pm every Saturday for 8 weeks which were hosted at the College of William and Mary. During the sessions, instructors give participants direction on how to construct a joke, whether it relates to one’s own personal experiences or not. They also provided class members with material examples to facilitate creativity. “The bootcamp was rough from the beginning and I was constantly pushed outside of my comfort zone to perfect my jokes,” Breckenridge said of the experience. “You have to work on your own after the class and I tried to think of ways to make the jokes funnier but keep the same bit. You have a four to five minute bit and you keep perfecting it over time.”
Breckenridge is a U.S. Army Veteran who retired three years ago after 21 honorable years of service. He'd seen his fair share of combat during that time with multiple deployments under his belt. While in the military Breckenridge was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which has had a significant impact on his life and the lives of those closest to him. He deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait and unfortunately, lost six close comrades during and after his time in the service.
After leaving the military Breckenridge felt alone and even contemplated suicide and said loneliness and isolation played a major role in his inability to cope with PTSD. “I had a hard time with [PTSD] during my time in the service and especially after I got out of the military,” said Breckenridge. “Initially I was excited to retire from the Army but after a few days I wanted to go back because I missed my soldiers and being able to have that comradery.” With the help of Hampton VA mental health experts and recently the comedy bootcamp, Breckenridge was able to find ways to cope with an illness that is a lasting part of his everyday life.
When Breckenridge first entered the ASAP bootcamp he didn’t know what to expect. Initially, he was nervous but with the support of his wife he decided to dive head first into the experience. “My wife always knew I was funny. She supported me when I told her I wanted to go to bootcamp and said that being humorous gives me the ability to hide pain. I’ve always used humor to disguise my pain,” Breckenridge explained.
Breckenridge said that his bootcamp experience helped to curb this burning desire to commit suicide and that it was therapeutic for his PTSD. Additionally, he could relate to all of his classmates because of their similar feelings and experiences and was able to work through many of his issues. “I’m not that guy anymore that I was before the class,” he said. “This worked a lot better than any pill that VA could give you.”
Breckenridge’s story of deployments, separation and loss are the very things that make him relatable to other Veterans; however, these experiences don’t always translate to the civilian population. This is why Comedy BootCamp Director Josiah Day believes storytelling through comedy was such an integral part of this experience – it allows boot camp participants to express their unique feelings and experiences to audiences of varied backgrounds through a universal platform.
So far Breckenridge has performed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and the Funny Bone in Virginia Beach. His journey is also the subject of an upcoming WHRO documentary about the comedy bootcamp which will air in late August.
When asked about his feelings regarding the bootcamp in general, overall Breckenridge says that he would highly recommend the bootcamp to others. As for his next adventure, Breckenridge is looking forward to attending other programs ASAP has to offer whether in music, visual arts or writing. “I’m definitely going to do a different program coming up. I have a background in music and singing, so this time I think I’ll learn to play piano.”
To check out Breckenridge’s stand-up routine visit his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/1SH1lb9.