Travels with the Military


From an article originally printed in the Colorado Woman News

A Comedian in a War Zone ~ by Edith Weiss

“Three weeks in a war zone,” the agent said. “You’ll sleep in tents, fly in helicopters, play bases in Hungary, Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia.”

“I need to think about it,” I said.

“The tour starts in five days. I’ll give you an hour to decide.”

This was in October 1998. At that time I’d been a touring comic for 8 years, working clubs from Alaska to Philadelphia. I had already been sent on one MWR (Morale-Welfare-Recreation) tour in Korea, Japan, and Okinawa. My thoughts went back to that tour.

Some of those shows put the ugly in the saying “Comedy ain’t pretty.” In Korea I did a show in Kunsan, a “hard duty” base, meaning there were no women and lots of pissed off tough guys. I stood on a dark stage, trying to be heard over the din of pinball machines, televisions, and music, in front of glares that ranged from unfriendly to seething with hostility. My mind occasionally wandered to the question of what they did to deserve this hard duty and if they were thinking of doing it to me, which is not conducive to the rapport you need to make people laugh. Military policy states that shows have to be squeaky clean, politically correct, nothing that would be offensive to anyone, anytime, anywhere. No making fun of the military, the President (which was Clinton - I mean, come on. You can’t take Clinton away from a comic), religion; or any jokes of a sexual nature. So I was staying within those guidelines, especially since I knew a comic who got stopped mid-show by an offended Colonel and shipped home on the next plane. However, when you’re up there, slick with flop sweat and hoping they’re not armed, the chance you might be ignominiously fired and not able to meet the mortgage is one you’ll take rather than ever face a hundred bitter and bored faces again. After that show, I decided policy be damned, I’m doing my act uncensored. The jokes got real, my show was funny, and the audiences stopped glaring and started laughing.

At the end of that tour, as if to get me back for my audacity, I was forced to spend a night sleeping in a Korean whorehouse. Due to an unexplained snafu, (just try getting an explanation out of the military) no reservations had been made for us anywhere, and shelter of ill repute is better than none. Remembering that night, sleeping in a tent didn’t seem so bad. I agreed to go. The Balkan tour turned out to be very different from the Asian one.

First, I flew into Budapest, where I was met the other comedian, Patrick Candalaria from Texas, at the airport. We were taken to Camp Taszar, in Hungary, and were outfitted with sleeping bags, Kevlar vests to protect against shrapnel, and helmets. The vest weighs 26 pounds, the helmet 7. Wearing them was mandatory, and, on my scrawny, civilian body, ridiculously heavy. I wondered if the main purpose was to keep us from running away.

We met our bus driver, Ricky, a Briton living in Germany with a German woman. Patrick hailed from El Paso, of Mexican father and German born mother, and me, of Czechoslovakian father and German mother. We were officially Laugh Force Five, and we felt like a ragtag United Nations.

Everywhere we went, it was in the midst of an armed convoy, with a soldier manning the machine gun in the turret. Stopping before our destination was politely discouraged, and I learned real fast to limit my intake of liquids. Guys can hold it longer. Much longer.

We drove through Hungary south through Croatia to the bridge at Brco (pronounced Britchco). The bridge had been destroyed in the war and rebuilt by NATO and the de-mining process was still going on. We were told to walk only on the roads, for the Balkans are full of unexploded land mines. Once over the bridge into Bosnia, the devastation of the war was everywhere. The road turned to mostly dirt. Many of the buildings had been bombed, and those still standing had bullet holes. Many had no roofs. People hauled water. Shell-shocked stray dogs ran around, tail between their legs. On the side of the dusty road sat a very old woman with her crutches, watching the men rebuilding their homes. It was already very cold. I was told she’s sat in the same place every day for at least a year. People we passed just stared at us bleakly. Borrowing money to build a house is not done here, people save for years and build their houses one story at a time, one story for each generation. During the war, bombing a three-story house usually meant that three generations of the family were killed.

At the time NATO had been threatening air strikes because of the situation in Kosovo, and the deadline was October 26, six days from when we got there. In Bosnia all soldiers were at “Bravo” alert: armed and Kevlared at all times. No alcohol. Take your M-16 to the shower. We asked what Charlie, the next level after Bravo, meant. “That’s when you’re under fire.” Things were tense, and so uncertain that we never got an itinerary. Our first stop was McGovern base, and nobody had been told there was a woman in the group. (me) This meant I got a Con-X, a four by eight structure with only a cot and sometimes a kerosene heater, all to myself. It was pretty close to the showers and latrines. We did the show in a hangar that housed tanks.

Bright and early the next morning: (we do more before 6 a.m. but why? was one of my unvoiced questions) we traveled in our convoy to Camp Comanche. It was a mud pit. The latrines were in a tent, just like in M*A*S*H. They didn’t realize there was a woman in the group. (me again) Troy, our contact, kept saying in that vague yet insistent way I would get familiar with in the army: “you could sleep in the Con-X’s at the other end of the camp but it’s so muddy.” “I don’t mind mud so much.” “It’s so muddy, though. Really muddy.” “That’s all right.” “What a mess that mud is. And, it’s really far away, those Con-X’s. You know, you could sleep right here.” After the fifth “really really muddy” we realized we were supposed to agree, which we did, not realizing that “right here” meant in the rec center, on army cots. And that the rec center was open till two, with stereos, video games, ping pong…pretty much anything that was loud. I decided to opt for the privacy of the bus, while Patrick and Ricky slept on army cots in the center. Which I realized, hours later in an unheated bus with no toilet, was one of the stupider things I’d ever done.

Bright and oh so early (why?) the next morning we took a helicopter to Camp Dobol. There I learned about Bosnian Muslims: the women are not veiled, drinking and smoking is allowed. Many Bosnians work in the camps, doing the chores of cleaning, cooking, and laundering. The man who ran the P.X. was a Muslim nicknamed Nookie (this amused him) who apologized for his English. I wonder how many times people who speak two, three, and four languages apologize for their English to an American who only speaks the language he was born to. It’s a form of graciousness Americans can’t comprehend. He told me that when he got a bonus for the Best Employee Award, his family and friends who work on the base with him didn’t speak to him for weeks. We take competition to be the “best” as a good thing, in Bosnia it speaks of belittling others to single out one as the best.

Next day, camp Demi. (named for Demi Moore) The soldiers here play soccer and basketball with the people of Klidanj, the nearest village. They get beat in both. The Bosnians love basketball in the larger villages kids play it all the time.

As I was doing my act, now fully uncensored, one of my jokes was about a butt thong, and I noticed many soldiers looking nervously at the chaplain, a black woman. I asked her, “Chaplain, are you okay with this?” “You bet!” she answered. I asked her if she had ever worn a butt thong, and she said, “What do you think I have on under my fatigues?” The show was talked about for days afterwards. We looked forward to doing the shows. No sullen faces here, just gratitude and often a desperate need to laugh. We were told at one camp that the soldiers had spent the day digging bodies out of a mass grave. We helicoptered to an observation point high on top of a hill in Macedonia where 12 guys do lonely lookout duty. We did the show in the mess tent at noon, right after a meal of cold tuna noodle casserole. The camp is fogged in most of the time. When I asked the camp commander, a stern man with a German accent, what the point was of having an observation post that was fogged in most of the time, he answered with Teutonic stoicism: “That is a very good question.” And walked away.

Traveling through Bosnia, I saw the beauty of its wooded mountains where wild horses still run. The Muslim mosques and Christian churches in ancient villages, where each house has a garden and goats. The poverty sets the country in another time; I see women wash the family laundry by hand, goats roast on a spit in front of houses. Old and young men in small horse drawn carts. And always, grim reminders of war: bombed cars and buses rusting by the roads, rivers whose banks are brightly colored by children’s clothing and household goods which have been clinging to the tree roots for years, an abandoned mountain resort. Houses with only the skeletal structure left, with trees growing tall inside. This means that everyone in that family is dead, or they are gone. Leaving Slav-Brod, we were warned we’d see terrible devastation. For forty-five minutes, we passed entire villages and towns bombed into ghost towns. Not a living soul.

Thousands of small memorials with pictures of the dead dot the country. Many villages still have no signs to identify them; during the war they were taken down to confuse the enemy. I was often told: during the war, everybody killed everybody else. This was no clear-cut good guy -bad guy war.

I came back from the Balkans a more thoughtful person and a better comic. At first when I got home, I felt depressed and displaced. I found I had little patience with the whining and self-pity that passes for normal discourse here. I wrote a joke about it: we’re so self-indulgent we make stuff up to be upset about. Like the mid-life crisis. Somebody turns 40, and then they fall apart: “I have to find myself. I don’t know who I am.” If you’re 40, and you don’t know who you are, make something up, nobody gives a crap.




Comedian in a War Zone


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