It was a warm night at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, in early May 2022, a perfect evening for arriving comedians to take charge and entertain service members through laughter. Operation Punchline was on the scene and soon would put on a show to remember on the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation stage.
This particular cast consisted of comedians Slade Ham, Chase Durousseau, Tre Tutson, and Paul Oddo, all originally from Houston, Texas. The tour is part of the 15th to 20th rotation Operation Punchline has conducted under Armed Forces Entertainment, and will take the comedians through Kosovo, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Poland, where they will perform solely for military audiences.
AFE has a long history of entertaining Soldiers while abroad. Established on September 13, 1951, the Armed Forces Professional Entertainment Office became a division of the Department of the U.S. Army. The mission was to provide entertainment to military personnel at military bases worldwide. The sole reason was to bring fun and relaxation through comedy, music, theater, magic, dance, and sporting events. The Air Force became the executive agent of the office in 2006, changed the name to Armed Forces Entertainment, and now administers the program jointly among all branches. Some previous AFE Operation Punchline entertainers include George Wallace, Alonzo Bodden, and Tammy Pescatelli.
“I really enjoyed the comics that came to Bondsteel on Thursday. It was nice that we were given the opportunity to relax, interact and laugh with the comics and each other. For my first comedy show during a deployment, I would definitely call it a win,” said Sgt. 1st Class Shannon C. Riddle, an operations noncommissioned officer at Regional Command-East, Kosovo Force.
Riddle was referring to the countless laughs the audience enjoyed at the hands of Operation Punchline comedians. It was laugh after laugh, at least for a couple of hours, and provided an experience that the Soldiers will remember for the rest of their lives.
“It’s very rare that I can see a tangible impact of what I do in the world and also get to see the world,” said Ham. He reflected on how he can empathize with Soldiers by giving them something else to think about for at least a moment.
Ham reflecting on his tangible impact identified well with service members in attendance, as noted by Chief Warrant Officer 3 William T. Johnson.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the show and I appreciate the efforts made by the MWR team that went into bringing outside entertainment to us here at Bondsteel,” said Johnson, the brigade mobility officer at KFOR RC-East. “I was looking forward to attending the show from the moment I saw the event announcement and the comics did not disappoint.”
COVID-19 has imposed added barriers on Soldiers' lives during the last couple of years, impacting missions and morale-building opportunities. As the world opens back up to some form of normalcy, comedy remains a constant advocator for healthy minds amongst service members.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., signifying the importance of promoting a strong body, mind, and soul through different coping mechanisms and techniques. Operation Punchline provided that to deployed service members with their visit to RC-East.
“I’ve actually been here before in 2019, before the pandemic, and they gave me the opportunity to do these tours again,” Oddo said. “I always said, if I had the opportunity to do this again, I would drop whatever it is that I’m doing and come do it because it’s one of the more rewarding things that I can be a part of as far as it pertains to standup comedy.”
Although deployed Soldiers receive a lot of support from family members back home, MWR programs are designed to maintain a healthy life balance, whether it be through physical activity within sports, recreational through music, or as in this case, through art, just what the comedians provided for RC-East Soldiers.
“Opportunity to kind of share some cheer and laughter and bring a good time to people that are protecting our freedom,” said Tutson. He added it’s important to him because it makes him feel good to perform in front of Soldiers.
The uplift in the room was noticeable from a crowd that was not exactly sure what they were going to get.
“The laugh of a Soldier in a deployed setting has a weight to it that’s indescribable,” Durousseau said. “My father was in the military and I remember once I decided to pursue comedy, after I came back from entertaining Soldiers in Iraq & Kuwait, giving him all my certificates and coins and souvenirs I collected, he was really proud and couldn’t believe I got to do that just by being funny.”
Soldiers gathered at the completion of the event to show appreciation to each comedian and thanked them for bringing cheer during our deployed environment. Many Soldiers like Riddle and Johnson left with an everlasting impression of how important it is to have these types of events, especially while abroad.
The 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 29th Infantry Division, Virginia National Guard is deployed as the 30th U.S. rotation to Kosovo as the RC-East headquarters element. RC-East Soldiers support the ongoing KFOR mission to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo.