By Kelli Neiman, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerSeptember 24, 2012
FORT POLK, La. -- Fort Polk Soldiers and civilians met a master storyteller Sept. 10-11 at Bayou Theater. Bernie McGrenahan's intimate story of alcohol abuse, denial, suicide and eventual acceptance of responsibility for his actions brought countless laughs, "uh-huhs" and rounds of applause.
Billed as one of today's top stand-up comedians, McGrenahan opened his "Happy Hour" comedy tour with, "How many of you men and women have to be here?" Applause resonated throughout the theater. "A mandatory comedy show -- that makes me feel good." The first 30 minutes, comprised purely of entertainment, allowed audience members a chance to unwind and relax.
Maintaining a humorous undertone, McGrenahan transitioned to the serious side of his act by describing his first encounter with the law. "Five guys jumped into five cars and we drove to a club. We never talked about a designated driver. We'd figure that out later. Bad idea."
For McGrenahan, drinking alcohol led to bad decision-making, which resulted in dire consequences -- a driving under the influence arrest. "I spent $25 that night to have a good time with my friends. But with poor planning and no designated driver, you know what I paid with my reputation being damaged? My honor? My integrity? A lot more than $25." Throughout his routine, McGrenahan intertwined familiar aspects of alcohol consumption linked to clear preventive-measure messages.
At age 19, he was arrested for a second DUI that resulted in a substantial court fine and six months of counseling. After those six months, McGrenahan continued to deny his drinking problem. His counselor advised, "Your drinking has affected everything you do in life, but you don't see it. You know what's funny about guys like you? They always have an excuse and they never want to be honest with what's going on."
The following year, McGrenahan's excessive drinking delivered another blow when he lost his job because of poor work performance. Finding employment proved futile because of the two DUIs. He turned to his mother who took him in with contingencies -- staying out of trouble and getting his life back on track.
While at home, he realized his 19-year-old brother, Scott, was following in his alcohol-induced footsteps. He told Scott, "I want you to talk to a chaplain or a counselor. Seeking help doesn't show weakness. It's a sign of courage. We are as sick as our secrets. Don't deny the problem."
After the encounter, McGrenahan consoled himself with a few beers at a local bar. In an ironic twist, this drunken drive home didn't result in a DUI. "I went back to see my brother and I didn't get pulled over. I didn't kill anybody." However, when he reached his mother's home he faced the most heart-wrenching experience of his life -- his brother had committed suicide. "I saw three police cars, an ambulance and 50 neighbors on the lawn covering their faces," he recounted.
The audience hung on his every word as he, with strong emotion, conveyed the details of this sobering experience. McGrenahan emphasized, "My brother never thought what that bullet would do when it went through him because it didn't stop there. It went through my mother. My mother took that bullet that day. She's had a hole in her soul for the last 20 years. My father took that bullet; so did my siblings and I.
"I'm not telling you drinking will make you take your life. But, I'll tell you what: Alcohol and drugs mess with you and make a little problem a lot heavier.
"I've never worn the boots of a Soldier. I don't know what it's like to be you. I've never had to get up at 4 a.m. and run five miles in the heat with an 80 pound ruck. No one has ever asked me to deploy and go to Iraq or Afghanistan for a year, let alone once, or four or five times, like some of you."
"I don't know what it's like to serve my nation like you do. I've never been away from my wife for two deployments and come back and realized there are marital challenges.
"I'll tell you what I do know -- suicide is not the way to go no matter how dark it seems." The comedian implored the audience to learn from his personal experience and loss. He urged everyone to seek assistance from chaplains and the Army Substance Abuse Program. Reinforcing the healing nature of communication, he encouraged the audience to talk with one another about stressors.
He encouraged Soldiers to talk to fellow Soldiers and emphasized the high-risk, alcohol-related behavioral warning signs that include withdrawal, drinking, anger, pre-deployment strains and redeployment-related maladjustment. "Notice these signs, talk to each other and be a friend. Help each other get help," he emphasized.
His story didn't end there. McGrenahan said he continued drinking to deal with his brother's suicide. Charged with a third DUI, he served a six-month sentence in the Los Angeles County Correctional Facility. He admitted to being tired of blaming everyone and everything but himself. He reached out for help and got counseling. To his family and friends he made restitutions for his behavior and actions. "I knew I couldn't get on with my life until I cleared the wreckage of my past. That's the only way to succeed in life --face the music and make amends. As a result, I'm 24 years sober."
The comedian shared his message to alert Soldiers and civilians to the dangers of alcohol. "I am not a victim anymore. I will not play that victim card ever again. I was born resilient, but I got sidetracked along the way dealing with stress. I am resilient again -- nothing will derail me."
When asked for statistical information regarding his comedic approach to such a serious and relative topic in today's military McGrenahan replied, "In prevention, it's hard to track saves. How do you track those who have altered the course of their lives? All you have to go on is personal responses."
Answering thousands of emails from Soldiers who have reached out to him after they caught his show is evidence that this ASAP-sponsored safety and prevention comedy routine makes a difference in Soldiers' and civilians' lives.
To read more of McGrenahan's impact on military life, visit comedyisthecure.com.
For local assistance contact ASAP at 531-1973.