By Mr. Stephen Baack (IMCOM)April 23, 2014
ANSBACH, Germany (April 23, 2014) -- Comedian Bernie McGrenahan stopped at Katterbach Kaserne and Storck Barracks for two shows April 17 that combined comedy with a unique perspective on alcoholism and recovery.
Hosted by the Army Substance Abuse Program, McGrenahan's visit to U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach was part of his international "Happy Hour" Comedy with a Message Tour, known for being the most-requested risk-reduction and prevention training program for U.S. military audiences.
McGrenahan begins each show with an unconfined stand-up comedy routine. Although he gradually weaves in jokes about alcohol consumption into the show -- "You know you have a drinking problem when your blood-alcohol level is higher than your grade-point average … when your alarm clock becomes a suggestion" -- his transition to more serious subject matter is designed to be smooth yet deliberate.
"I think it was a great show," said Capt. Erica Branch, a personnel officer with 12th Combat Aviation Brigade. "It got everybody's attention first. So everybody was really involved, and then the solid information -- the message -- was put out in that context."
Branch, who said McGrenahan flowed into the message "very smoothly," commended the show's training value for its realistic point of view.
"It's not a PowerPoint, but at the same time it's not a stiff speaker," Branch said, recalling innumerable training sessions on the same subject. "It's very down to earth and easy to relate to. It is more of an experience than just attending training. I think it's really valuable and something that Soldiers will remember and keep in mind."
As McGrenahan segued into his testimonial portion, audience laughter transitioned to solemn contemplation as he detailed his history of alcohol and drug use, and the trouble it's caused him and his family.
His story included his experiences getting three DUIs, which led to a six-month stint in Los Angeles County Jail. This was all after his younger brother's drug- and alcohol-related suicide, which he said compounded his own recklessness and only hastened his downward spiral. McGrenahan is now 26 years sober, a feat he said was only possible by using his resources and seeking help from chaplains and counselors.
McGrenahan acknowledges service members are not immune to the life-altering effects of alcohol, calling the substance "cunning, baffling, powerful" -- referencing the widely known phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous. Indeed, with the high op-tempo of today's Army and the specter of post-traumatic stress disorder, service members are as susceptible to substance and alcohol dependence as anyone.
Two of the show's main underlying messages were that asking for help is a sign of courage not of weakness, and that asking for help should never be stigmatized.
"I don't know what it's like to wear the uniform," he told the audience, "but I pray you guys never hurt yourselves because you don't want to ask for help."
That message resonated with at least one Soldier who has been struggling with alcohol.
"I've got a pretty similar history with alcohol. The show was touching; moving," said Pvt. Dustin Wheeler, with 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment (General Support).
"The story is pretty much the same," Wheeler continued. "I've been going through a lot of trouble with alcohol," but he said he's taking steps to reverse that. "I'm quitting. I don't need it anymore."
Wheeler, who confirmed that it was acceptable and appropriate to share his struggle and his identity, said he hopes ASAP brings back McGrenahan one day.
McGrenahan's whole show is normally an hour long, but he said he went longer and gave extra "because the crowds were so good." Each show requires great mental preparation, plenty of rest the night prior and limited social interaction before he steps on stage.
"The program takes every ounce of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual energy to deliver successfully," he said.
McGrenahan has also taken plenty of time to develop his show, especially the transition between comedy and personal testimony.
"The segue took years of experimenting with," he said. "The most natural fit was to reference humorous 'bits' of 'how much alcohol I once consumed in my life,' and then slowly delivering the facts of the cost and damage that drinking caused me.
"The combination of laughter followed by testimony is omnipotent," he added. "Personal testimony can inject itself into the hearts and mind of others. Personal testimony can trigger self inventory in others."
McGrenahan said when his show ends, his mission isn't finished. He takes time after each show to meet Soldiers, taking photos with them and showing them pictures of the family members he talked about on stage.
Throughout his time performing the "Happy Hour" Comedy with a Message Tour, McGrenahan said he has received thousands of personal messages from service members through his website http://comedyisthecure.com after his shows, adding, "I spend countless hours sharing my experience, strength and hope with all who write me."
Whether it's before or after a show, McGrenahan makes two facts clear: the dangers of alcohol abuse are real and that help is always available.
"[Alcohol dependency] can take 10 times more from someone's quality of life than it can ever provide," he said. "My goal is to get the few persons who may have a drinking problem to identify and no longer deny it is a problem in their lives and seek help. Alcoholism will deprive us of relationships with our loved ones, children, possible loss of career or even a loss of life."
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