“I’m a burn survivor,” he said. “Been extinguished for years, thank you.”
“I’m so cheap, I expect a discount on my cremation,” he joked.
In his fourth Iraqi War deployment, Bobby Henline had been stationed in the desert for only three weeks. A dozen years later, he stood in the Smith Student Center Ballroom as a Military Appreciation Week keynote speaker and comedian, explaining that, after that one fateful April day, his life would never be the same.
“It’s not that my story is any more important than anybody else’s in this room today,” Henline said. “We all have our stories and stuff we go through in life.”
Henline grew up a self-described “Navy brat” in California, with numerous family members having served in the military branch. As a junior, he dropped out of high school to spend his time as a DJ at a local roller-skating rink. It was then, Henline said, that he and his uncle had the idea to join the armed forces together.
After his uncle failed the testing to get into the military, Henline was 17 and entering the Army by himself. Two years later, he was in Desert Storm. Then, he was out of the service for a decade.
It was when two planes were piloted into the World Trade Center by Islamic terrorists that Henline decided to re-enlist. Despite having a wife and young children, he knew he couldn’t let such a thing happen to his country and not do anything about it. The next month, he was back in basic training.
“Going back in the second time, at 30 years old, was a little different than going in at 17,” Henline said. “Physically, at 17, it was a piece of cake. Mentally, it messed with my head. At 30 years old, physically, it messed with my body. I was an old man with a potbelly.”
He was deployed in 2003 for the initial push into Iraq. In the matter of a year, he moved from Kuwait into Baghdad. He returned home after that tour to train for ten months to move up a grade, moving his family from North Carolina to Colorado.
In one photo taken on that second tour in the Middle East, Henline stands in his camouflage fatigues, which are engulfed by a polka-dotted blue cooking apron. In one hand, he showcases a heavy machine gun with its magazine drooping down. In the other, a cherry pie; he was helping a fellow soldier celebrate his birthday with ingredients his mom and sister had sent for the pastry they’d make him every year.
“You make these decisions in your life,” Henline said. “To go back into the military, the kids had no idea what that was. Dads gone all the time and they’re having a hard time dealing with it, too. Sometimes you have to reflect and think about your decisions as an adult and how they affect everybody else around you.”
After one more deployment in 2005 and a family relocation back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Henline jokes that he learned his lucky number was three.
On April 7, 2007, a Humvee that Henline and four others were riding in was blown up by an IED. The vehicle was turned upside-down and thrown 20 meters, leaving a hole in the ground five feet in diameter and three feet deep. Despite being burnt to the skull, Henline was the only survivor.
It took a year-and-a-half for Henline to get skin back on his head. His left arm was burnt to the point where he could see the tendons in his hand.
“We tried for two years to get my hand to work,” Henline said. “I kept telling them to take it off in the hospital. It was in the way.”
Henline has undergone 16 surgeries on his eyelids alone. Doctors weren’t sure they would be able save his left eye. He wore a patch over it on some days, taking a googly eye and placing it over top.
He needed to have skin taken from his shoulder to reconstruct the left side of his face; they stretched skin from his neck to rebuild the right side. Henline has required six surgeries just so he could turn his head without bothering a scar on his face.
While recovering in physical therapy, an occupational therapist challenged Henline to participate in an open mic night and try to use his comedic talent to cope.
“I went through a hard time, too,” Henline admitted. “Even though I would use my sense of humor to help others and help myself kind of deal with some stuff, I’m still having a lot of trouble with it.”
He has survivor’s guilt. He felt like a burden to his family, especially to his wife at the time, who cared for and cleaned his wounds for four hours a day.
“I would laugh and be strong in front of the kids,” Henline said. “But inside, I would pray to God every night not to let me wake up the next day.”
Once an atheist, Henline did not want to believe in God. He didn’t like the forgiving nature of religion as a whole. He doesn’t believe in a certain theology, rather that it’s a personal connection for everybody.
In a medically-induced coma for two weeks after the incident, Henline remembers looking back, sitting on what he describes as a giant, white iceberg at night, with stars in the sky.
“It was very comfortable,” Henline said. “It was calm. There were voices telling me that I was going to be okay and that my family was waiting for me. When I woke up, that’s when I knew there was a higher power and that I was here for some reason.”
Henline has acted in Netflix’s “Sophie and the Rising Sun” and Showtime’s “Shameless.” He’s performed at Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club in Las Vegas, Laugh Factory in Chicago and Hollywood Improv in Los Angeles. The humor helps Henline keep his PTSD and anxiety at bay.
Henline believes that a single cup of coffee can end up helping to purchase a new house for a family.
For example, he explained, a single mom could be in the drive-thru behind you, flustered and running late for work. Paying for a coffee for her could change her mindset, leading to her doing great at her job and earning her a raise to pay her mortgage.
“We beat ourselves up, going ‘I’ve got to find this purpose. I’ve got to know why I’m here,’” Henline said. “It could be because your grandkids are going to do something amazing. Maybe you’re going to be there and save someone’s life someday just because you talk them. And you don’t even know it.”
Recently, Henline started his own foundation, Forging Forward. The charity does retreats, hosts veteran speakers and partners with other non-profits, as it did with Off-Road Outreach in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Henline will check into in-patient therapy in early December for three weeks, learning how to use mental health outlets better.