He just wanted to eat pizza.
But when you are Bobby Henline — a badly wounded Iraq War veteran, a burn victim and now an up-and-coming stand-up comedian — there's no such thing as a normal restaurant experience.
On a recent night, Henline and two other wounded vets dined at the famed San Antonio pizza joint Big Lou's, home of the 42-inch pizza. To exit the restaurant, Henline had to walk out a narrow hallway where dozens of people stood waiting to get in.
From experience, he knew what was coming next: furtive glances. Outright stares. Whispers.
What's wrong with that guy? What's wrong with his face?
So Henline, who lived through a roadside bomb that burned more than a third of his body and now is thriving after nearly four dozen surgeries, employed his normal survival technique.
“Whoa!” he yelled to the crowd staring at him. “Watch out in there. That pizza is really, really hot!”
“I got some people to laugh,” he said during a phone interview Friday. “You do that to try to take away the awkwardness ... you have to mess with people to break the ice, let them know everything is OK.”
Henline is bringing his one-of-a-kind act — part stand-up comedy and part message about overcoming incredible odds — to Omaha later this month.
He will be the first featured guest in the Americana 2012 Speaker Series, a new, quarterly speaker's series premiering at Papillion-La Vista High School on May 24. The event, which starts at 7 p.m., is free and open to the public.
He will appear May 23 at the 40 and 8 Club, a local vets' restaurant, at a dinner that's also open to the public. For more information on this dinner, click here.
At both events, don't expect Henline to skirt the issue of his burned, disfigured face. He'll joke about his appearance. He'll talk about how his favorite holiday is now Halloween, because he can scare the neighborhood kids. He'll crack wise about zombies, and maybe Freddy Krueger.
“I think it's important to get the burn out there,” he said. “Gotta point out the elephant in the room.”
The stand-up routine, which Henline has perfected at open-mike nights and Vegas comedy clubs for the past four years, didn't begin until after he nearly died in Iraq.
In April 2007, Army Staff Sgt. Henline was riding in a Humvee with four other soldiers when a roadside bomb composed of four artillery shells, buried on a dusty road, detonated underneath the vehicle.
The Humvee burst into flames and flipped into the air.
The other four soldiers died. Henline survived, but just barely. He had been burned to the skull, and his condition was so perilous that doctors later told his wife there was no medical explanation for his survival.
Some 45 surgeries followed, including the amputation of a hand. The surgeries succeeded in closing the open wounds in his skull and have allowed him, over time, to return to something resembling his pre-war life.
But there's no surgery to make Henline look like he did pre-explosion. Months into his recovery, Henline realized he would have to find a new way to feel comfortable at the mall and the movie theater. He would have to find a new way to make personal connections with strangers who stared and whispered.
He chose humor.
Henline's comedy act tends to start with jokes about his appearance, and then segue to more standard fare, like relationships and family life.
He also isn't afraid to speak candidly about his injuries, his long road to recovery and how much each stand-up routine and public speaking appearance mean to him.
“Most of the rest of us should never feel sorry for ourselves again,” said Bill Williams. “It's just an opportunity to say, I might have my own troubles, but look at what this fine American deals with on a daily basis, and still he's so thankful to be alive.”
Williams and his wife, Evonne, are organizers of the Americana 2012 Speaker Series. The two are known in the local veterans community for organizing World War II honor flights that took veterans to see the monuments in Washington, D.C.
Henline's latest project is to take part in a documentary about wounded veterans who become stand-up comics. In July, he has a high-profile gig at a Las Vegas comedy club.
Henline's success doesn't mean he lives struggle-free, he said. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he often feels anxious in grocery stores or other crowded places.
Recently he took one of his three children to a movie and nearly had to leave because the pressure of the ticket line — trying to find his money, answering his daughter's questions while trying to scan the crowd for potential danger — left him frayed.
Henline fights back in the only way he knows how. He forces himself into the grocery store, even if it's to buy just a couple of items.
He stayed in the movie line.
And he looks for the comedy in it all. There must be something in this experience I can mine for new material, he thinks.
Henline appears at comedy shows about three times a week, he said. But he works on his routine nearly nonstop, writing Post-it notes when he wakes up in the middle of the night with a new punch line.
“I think I've figured out why I'm here,” he said. “In some ways, it feels like everything has fallen into place.”
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