Laughing in the face of adversity
After being wounded in Iraq, keynote speaker Thom Tran turned to comedy to help himself and others overcome stress.
Thom Tran never set out to become a comedian. When his family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in the 1980s, he wanted to be a rock musician, like Eddie Van Halen. Instead, he enlisted in the Army when he turned 18 and eventually found himself deployed to Iraq in 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Just four days after crossing the border, Tran was wounded during a firefight when a sniper’s bullet struck the back of his head. In spite of this, he was able to bandage himself and finish the mission as well as his 12-month tour in Iraq. Tran said his ability to do that came down to a simple question of leadership.
“I was a young, non-commissioned officer leading soldiers who were barely out of high school and who were just a few years younger than me,” he said. “My only thought after I got wounded was, I have to stay for them. I fail them as a leader if I leave the battlefield.”
After he was medically retired from the Army in 2005, Tran turned to comedy, a decision he said literally saved his life.
“And I mean ‘literally’ in the correct way that ‘literally’ is meant,” he said. “Living life after war without the skills to combat the stress that comes with it nearly killed me. Again, literally almost killed me.”
But he found the strength to go on and later created the GIs of Comedy Tour, a comedic troupe of troops that has toured the U.S. and dozens of other countries performing for both civilian and military audiences. They have raised more than $30,000 for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a charity that raises college scholarship funds for the children of fallen U.S. Special Operations personnel.
But comedy is only part of Tran’s life. Music continues to play an important role as well. He is the co-founder and lead guitar player for a heavy metal cover band called The Thom Tran Band.
“Music moves me the way I hope it moves audiences,” he said. “All it takes is a few bars, or sometimes even a single note to put your mind somewhere else. Some people call it their ‘happy place.’ Comedy does the same thing, in a different way. But mentally being able to get out of a bad head space is why I play music and do comedy.”
Tran hopes to bring that inspirational spirit to SHM Converge 2023 with his Keynote Address 1:45-2:30 p.m., Monday, March 27. He said battling through his adversity has helped him find ways to continue being a leader and to help others.
“I was a paratrooper who hates heights,” he said. “I was a shy kid who talks on stage for a living now. The Army taught me a lot about myself and how to conquer my fears. And I was an NCO, leading young soldiers. I didn’t leave the Army because I wanted to. The gunshot forced me to. But I still want to lead others, whether soldiers, veterans, or comedians.”
Being wounded on the battlefield, Tran said, gave him a whole new respect for those who work in the medical field.
“We like to say on the battlefield that ‘God loves medics,’” he said. “And guys that get shot in the head definitely love medics. We’re all on the front lines of our respective battles. The stress. The confusion. The fog of war. It’s the same. Sometimes, exactly the same. You don’t have to be a soldier to deal with the same kinds of stresses. But we can use the same skills and techniques to fight them.”
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