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Veterans Comedy Assault Team

Veterans salute a memorial in Northport Village on Memorial Day. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Assimilating back into everyday life is one of the hardest jobs that we ask of those in the military. Returning home to a normal routine can’t be comfortable for anyone who just spent years in a combat situation, having to kill — or assisting those who are wounded. Unfortunately, incidents like the one at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where a veteran took his own life in the hospital parking lot, are not uncommon.

Thankfully, events designed to gather as many veterans in the same place in an overwhelmingly positive setting are also becoming the norm. Army veterans Frank Lombardi and Chris Levy paddled kayaks from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Port Jefferson Aug. 27 — a 22-mile trek — in the name of raising awareness for veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. On the same day, the Veterans Comedy Assault Team hosted a night of stand-up comedy performances to benefit a veteran and her family who needed some extra assistance.

That comedy team is the brain child of a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Project 9 Line, which is an organization dedicated to reintegrating veterans back to civilian life and helping those suffering from PTSD.

Depression and suicide among veterans is a significant societal problem. Events like the two this weekend serve a major purpose, though they cannot be the only plan of attack. It is the responsibility of all citizens of this country to keep an eye on their neighbor, friend or relative to make sure they don’t feel like they’re alone. Military operations are always carried out by teams. Better treatment of veterans returning home should be a team effort among those they protect.

For more information on veteran support organizations:
www.project9line.org
www.sailahead.org
www.vocwny.org
www.facebook.com/dwyerproject/

The lineup of the Veterans Comedy Assault Team. Photo by Bob Savage

Already working with homeless veterans, when VFW Santora/Bonacasa Memorial Post 400 Commander John Rago was approached to start a comedy act to benefit veterans, he said the decision was a no-brainer.

Under Project9line, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that helps veterans reintegrate back into civilian life and helps those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, founder Patrick Donohue came up with the idea and had veteran comedians come in and teach a class to other veterans on how to perform and write his or her own material.

In March of 2015, the Veterans Comedy Assault Team performed for the first time at the Sayville VFW Post 433. According to Rago, despite it being a snowy evening, they had to turn people away because of how packed the venue was. That’s when the group realized that they had something special.

Patrick Donohue, found of Project 9 Line, gets the crowd going. Photo by Bob Savage
Patrick Donohue, found of Project 9 Line, gets the crowd going. Photo by Bob Savage

“I thought it was going to be one and done, but we had so much fun doing it and got such a big response that we realized we had a good product that we could keep going with,” Rago said.

The group performed a few more shows and held another training class this January before performing at the Centereach VFW Post 4927 — a bigger venue was needed due to another sold-out show.

One of the comedians, “Tugboat” Manny Erias, who performs his own stand-up act three nights a week, helped the team get into the Broadway Comedy Club in New York City.

“I kept saying, ‘We’re a block and a half away from the Ed Sullivan Theater,’” Rago joked excitedly. “Soon. One day.”

The group also performed at Comix Mohegan Sun, a comedy club on the grounds of the casino in Connecticut, and most recently held a benefit show at the Moose Lodge in Mount Sinai after Rago was approached by a veteran and recent divorcee with three children, who was on the verge of becoming homeless.

“I moved here from Florida and went through a divorce,” said the mother, who asked to remain anonymous. “I used all my savings. I tried to do the best I could. It became difficult.”

She reached out to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program under the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and was turned away because she exhausted all of her resources. She said the VA told her because she wasn’t homeless yet, there was nothing else they could do for her, and that even if she was to become homeless, assistance was not guaranteed.

Audience member Elizabeth Trabold laughs during the show. Photo by Bob Savage
Audience member Elizabeth Trabold laughs during the show. Photo by Bob Savage

That’s when she called Rago’s office at the Suffolk County United Veterans Association for Mental Health and Wellness, where he is an outreach coordinator. When he heard about her situation, falling behind three months on her rent, he thought holding a comedy show to benefit her was the perfect solution.

So Rago made a call to Ron Romanska, who used to work at the Suffolk County Veterans Services Agency as an officer and is now involved in the Coalition of Veterans Organizations and a member of the Moose Lodge.

“I told him the story and that I wanted to do a comedy show and he said, ‘Okay, you want the Moose Lodge? You’ve got it.’ Just like that,” Rago said.

During the comedy show Aug. 27, which more than 100 people attended, the Veterans Comedy Assault Team raised nearly $2,500. The Moose Lodge chipped in $500 and the owner also handed Rago a personal check for $100, on top of the raffle prizes being donated from different stores and businesses.

“There’s nothing like making somebody laugh — it’s so much fun,” Rago said of the events. “Guys in the audience who suffer from PTSD tell us that for the hour and a half they had not a care in the world because they were laughing. It’s therapy.”

It’s also therapy for those involved, like Erias, a retired U.S. Navy Reservist who suffers from anxiety and depression, and goes to the Association of Mental Health and Wellness camps for help coping with his condition.

“We donate our time, money, energy and resources into this and it’s a great success,” he said. “There’s nothing better than helping someone else out by being able to do what we love. It’s the best feeling in the world. And you do it without looking for a return. I’m broke … I’m going for disability, my mother just passed away and I have so many things working against me to keep me down, but I go up there, and for me, it’s a coping skill. I make people laugh, and forget about life for a while.”

The Veterans Comedy Assault team performs at the Comix Comedy Club at Mohegan Sun. Photo from Facebook

VFW Santora and Bonacasa Memorial Post 400 presents Comedy for a Cause featuring the Veterans Comedy Assault Team on Aug. 27, 8 p.m. at the Moose Lodge in Mount Sinai.

The Veterans Comedy Assault Team started in January 2015 as a part of Project 9 Line, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans with reintegration back to civilian life, and help those veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The team is made up of veterans from Long Island.

Since it’s inception, the group has performed various shows on Long Island as well as at the Broadway Comedy Club in Manhattan and the Comix Comedy Club at Mohegan Sun.

Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door, and all proceeds from this show will benefit a veteran family in need.

To purchase tickets, call 631-806-1699. Visit www.veteranscomedyassault.org for more information about the organization.

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