It may be a cliché, but in the case of comedian Anthony Fuentes, laughter has been the best medicine to help the veteran deal with the PTSD he developed after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And now he is hoping to help heal his fellow military brothers and sisters with his comedy.
It’s really no surprise Fuentes ended up on stage. As a child growing up in Chicago and New York, he was always making his family laugh.
“I would always be in front of the TV cracking jokes,” he said. “As a matter of fact, my mother would always say he will come out a lawyer or a comedian.”
And when he decided to join the army at age 20 because, he says, he needed the discipline in his life, his fellow soldiers became his audience.
“As I kid, I was always cracking jokes and went I went to the army that didn’t change,” he said.
“Sergeant Atkins loved my impressions and when he was feeling down he would say, ‘Fuentes bring up morale. Come make us laugh.’ And I’d sit there and I actually performed.”
And combat engineer Fuentes was bringing up morale in the battlefield as part of the
4th Infantry Division 299th Engineer Battalion of the U.A. Army.
Fuentes was deployed twice between 2001 and 2003 to Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It was a scary time. We had never been to war. We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “And I will say this, the military trains you very well because if not we wouldn’t be able to come back but …. you are so caught up in the moment you don’t reflect on what could possibly be happening to you mentally and physically. It isn’t until you get back.”
And reentry was not easy for Fuentes. He felt lost trying to get his bearings in civilian life. He found himself anxious and angry. He says he tried to calm himself down with alcohol and getting in trouble.
“When I got out of the army, I was in a lot of depression. I had a lot of anxiety. My mood would change within an instant. Latino families, we don’t believe in doctors. We just say, ‘Mira este esta loco. Ponte un poco de Vics and it will go away.’
Fuentes was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He started seeing a therapist regularly. One day she posed a question that proved to be lifesaving.
“During my sessions she would ask, ‘What are your hobbies? What do you like to do?’ … And I remembered I always wanted to be a comic and I never pursued it. (I found) out how to get on an open mic and one day I just went for it,” he said. “I realized at that moment I felt a weight offf of my shoulders, off of my chest. And it felt for the first time in my life, this is where I belong.”
From his first comedy set, Fuentes has been self-deprecating and very sincere about his struggles with mental health. He says its now part of his tools to deal with his PTSD.
“I realized me joking about it made it easier for me to confront it at the same time,” he said. “I started using stories of things that happened to me in the army as a release. Tragedy can turn into comedy if you handle it the right way. And it has been a benefit because I’ve been able to help others as well.”
Especially fellow soldiers, his brothers and sisters, who he tries to entertain with laughter as often as he can.
Fuentes is now a full time comedian working stages all over Chicago. He is happily married and is father of two.
He credits comedy, prayer and therapy for feeling the happiest his ever been and encourages others especially in the Latino community who are struggling with their mental health to look for help.