How one veteran is using standup to heal the wounds of war
The battlefield almost killed him. Comedy brought him back to life.
Few people can turn getting shot five times into a joke, but Sgt. Michael Carrasquillo is doing just that.
The 33-year-old has always goofed around. A class clown who loved being the center of attention, Carrasquillo took part in theater and musical productions in high school. When he joined the Army, he graduated to pranking his fellow recruits. Fifteen years later, his military career and love of comedy have collided, and the New York native has taken his unique experiences to the standup circuit in Clarksburg, Pennsylvania.
Carrasquillo joined the Army after 9/11, and after a tour of duty in Iraq and a posting in Italy, he was sent to Afghanistan in 2005. Six months into his year-long posting, in the rush to capture a high-ranking al Qaeda official, Carrasquillo's unit was ambushed by al Qaeda fighters on a desolate hillside.
Carrasquillo describes the events with compelling clarity. "We dropped down and they opened fire on us immediately. They had picked the perfect ambush spot." The soldiers scrambled for cover. Crouched behind a boulder, Michael watched as one of his squad went down. "He was on the ground. I could see him grabbing his leg, I could see this little pulse of dirt as bullet are pinging all around him, and I made a snap decision."
As he raced to haul his friend to safety, Carrasquillo was shot five times. One bullet penetrated his left bicep, shattering bones and muscle. Another went through his armpit into his shoulder, and three more slammed into his body armor, shattering ribs and collapsing a lung.
As Carrasquillo lay bleeding on the ground, one of his squad mates crouched beside him to help. There was so much blood his friend struggled to see where he was hit. Carrasquillo, the only one in his group with combat lifesaver training, told him what to do.
"I told him to check for exit wounds, but he couldn't find any. My body was going through shock, so I wasn't really feeling anything, but I felt as if I was lying on a baseball, so I told him to check the back of my shoulder.
"He slid his hand in and immediately yanked it out. He turned completely pale, and told me, 'You have a hole in your back.' I asked him, 'How big'? And he showed me his balled up fist, covered in blood. I knew I was bleeding out. I told him to grab a cotton bandage and shove it into the hole. That was the first real pain I felt; it was like a sword going into my back and twisting."
The panicked private shouted at the unit's staff sergeant to call the helicopters back. "He screamed, 'If you don't get the birds he's gonna die right here!' In that moment I realized the silliness of it. The first thing they teach you in the lifesaver course is to always reassure the victim they'll be fine as it's a lot harder to render aid to someone who's panicking."
Still under fire, Carrasquillo managed to struggle to his feet. Two squad members helped him down the rocky hill towards the waiting helicopter, where he was pitched headfirst onto the metal floor "like a lawn dart" to the waiting medical officer.
He woke up three days later in a hospital in Bagram. Although he'd left the fire and blood of combat behind, he had no idea he was just at the beginning of a long journey of rehabilitation. He spent the next two years in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, undergoing 42 reconstruction surgeries and flatlining twice in the process.
Carrasquillo's injuries left him disabled. "The injury changed me, mentally and emotionally. After I was discharged, I floated for a couple of years. I went through a very dark period, I was in a very bad place."
With the help of a mentor and a training program for disabled veterans, Carrasquillo started over, retraining as an IT project manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs, a job he does from home. He also runs a veterans support group to help others going through tough times.
It was in his support group he learned of a standup comedy course just for veterans. But while the former class clown still loved a good joke, his experiences meant his confidence had taken a knock.
"I do still like to make people laugh, but I'm not comfortable being the center of attention, and I'm not comfortable in large crowds or being outside of my comfort zone," he says. Clearly, this is problematic for a standup comedian. But the more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed. He enrolled in the course.
"One of the hardest things was being on stage and having the spotlight on me, but it pushed me to expand myself and put myself out there," he says. "The more I did it, the more I fell in love with it."
Carrasquillo's self-deprecating humor draws heavily on his military experiences. He cheerfully refers to himself as a "dumb private" in one routine, and in another, holds up a hand to riff on his lost finger.
As he paces easily around the stage, there is no sign of the doubt he says plagued him. But then again, Carrasquillo has found comedy unexpectedly healing. "I could say things that were on my mind, or that might make people feel uncomfortable, and I can show that [my experience] doesn't really define who I am."
Now, he shrugs off the jitters. "It's like jumping out of a plane. As you're going up, you get the anxiety, the butterflies. But when you step outside onto the stage, it's easy, it's natural — what's going to happen is what's going to happen."
Standup comedy means exposing yourself to hecklers as well as every comedian's worst nightmare: silence. Has Carrasquillo ever fallen flat on his face during a show?
"The easy answer is no — all my jokes are so funny everyone laughs," he deadpans.
Editor's note: This article originally misstated Carasquillo's military role. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.