In December 2003, a roadside bomb in Iraq turned U.S. Army 1st Lt. Stephen Rice’s left foot into hamburger. Nine years later, Rice ’02 was onstage at the Laugh Factory in L.A. joking about it. He detached his prosthetic leg, lifted it over his head, and pretended to be a jihadist.
“’Hey Lt. Rice, I’ve got your dead leg. Hahahaha. I got your dead leg. (Rice lets out an ululation.) This little terrorist went to the bomb store; this little jihadi went boom. Your little toes are no longer ticklish; I’ll have 76 virgins soon.’”
The performance was part of the 2013 documentary Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor, which matched five veterans severely injured in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars with famous comedians, including Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, B.J. Novak, Bob Saget, and Bob Nickman. The veterans got a chance to tell their stories while learning stand-up comedy.
“The point of the documentary is that when you can laugh at your injury and get past your own baggage is when true healing really starts,” Rice said.
Rice was sent to Iraq in March 2003, just a few months after graduating from Illinois State’s Army ROTC program and with a criminal justice sciences degree. He led a unit in charge of retraining Iraqi police.
The bomb exploded while his soldiers were responding to another roadside bomb near Baghdad. “I started running down this highway on-ramp to go assess the situation,” he said. “As I was running, the second roadside bomb went off. It took me out.”
In an instant, Rice went from being an athletic 22-year-old in his prime, to not knowing whether his wounds would derail a career as a police officer.
“I was very angry,” he said. “My leg looked like a golf ball had gone through my ankle.”
He returned to his hometown of Alton to begin a long rehabilitation to salvage the limb. He underwent several surgeries, including having his big toe sewn back on. The military found him a job at a railroad company, even though he knew nothing about trains.
“It was just not working,” Rice said. “I was in really bad shape, physically and mentally. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I really wanted to go back in the combat theater with my folks. And I couldn’t.”
One gray day in October 2004 he limped out to get the mail. As he opened the mailbox door, icy rain started pouring on him.
“I remember thinking, ‘I give up. I’m done,’” Rice said. “And I don’t even know what that meant. I told myself, ‘I wish I could cut this thing off.’ It was kind of like a light bulb went off.”
Rice went back inside, immediately researched amputations, and decided to have his leg removed. The doctors thought his request was crazy but agreed to the surgery.
“It was almost like as soon as I had the thing cut off, everything was perfect,” he said. “I just immediately felt better about everything, about the future, about my situation. It was kind of counterintuitive, but that is how it worked.”
During his second rehab, Rice met an older veteran who helped get him a job in Maryland as an agent with the National Security Agency. He also became involved in the Wounded Warrior Project, which led to the opportunity to appear in the documentary. This was his first attempt at comedy.
“It was kind of terrifying because you just don’t know if these jokes are going to work,” he said. “If you get into a gunfight in a war, I feel very confident that I could shoot straight. When it comes to writing a solid joke, it’s a totally different thing. You could just totally miss your target.”
The documentary has won several awards, among them a prestigious honor from the Television Academy. Rice’s biting sense of humor is sprinkled throughout the film. In one bit he brags about being able to park anywhere he wants now that he has lost a leg: “Because cops don’t like giving cripples tickets.”
Rice is happily married and has two young daughters. He is using his comedy turn to build a side career in motivational speaking.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.