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Firefighter Turned Comedian

Issue 1 and Volume 10.

Editor’s Note: Former Charleston, South Carolina, firefighter and now national headlining comedian Travis Howze lived through the tragic death of nine of his brother firefighters-now referred to as the Charleston 9. Plagued with post-traumatic stress, major depression, and survivor’s guilt, Travis hit rock bottom. Learn how Travis found a way up from the bottom through laughter. It is an age-old adage that laughter is the best medicine, and Travis is using it to heal his pain and hopes that it will heal others as well. I recently caught up with Travis to discuss his upcoming 2015 FDIC International standup comedy show, the comedy circuit, and how his backstory will surely be an inspiration for seeking the right help at the right time. Read his story here, in his own words.
-Erich Roden


Where It Began

I don’t like hearing professional athletes referred to as heroes. In my mind, heroes don’t do it for the zeros. When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, you didn’t see the New York Yankees or New York Knicks running into those burning buildings-you saw firefighters and police officers. If you disagree, ask yourself this: If your own child was trapped in a burning building and standing on the front lawn was a firefighter, a police officer, and LeBron James, who do you think is running in to save him? It certainly isn’t going to be Lebron.

I don’t have just one hero, I have nine-the Charleston 9. These nine firefighters gave their lives on June 18, 2007, while saving a trapped civilian in a furniture warehouse fire known as the Sofa Super Store Fire. I am proud to have called these men my brothers. I am proud to have served alongside them. I am proud that I was able to carry them out of that building that night even though I have been riddled with guilt ever since. It was the least I could do for them, and I will spend the rest of my life honoring and carrying them.

At a very young age I knew I wanted to serve a larger purpose in life; I wanted to serve my fellow man and be a part of a bigger picture. I wanted to serve my community so that’s what I did as a marine, police officer, and firefighter.

During my time in service I would experience numerous horrors. I thought I was strong enough to handle everything that I was experiencing. Turns out, I just figured out how to compartmentalize my feelings. That is until the compartment was too full to hold them any longer. In March 2010, the curtain would unexpectedly drop and I was forced to bow out gracefully from the fire service due to the toll my traumatic exposures had taken on me. Over the course of 14 years, I had belonged to several brotherhoods and now I was alone-at least it felt that way for a while.

In both the military and emergency services, many of us deal with our troubles through a very dark and twisted sense of humor that only we in the brother/sisterhood understand. We laugh and joke about things that seem insensitive to others, but it’s perfectly normal in our world. It’s our way of coping and staying sane. After years of traumatic exposures and personal tragedy, it was laughter that would literally pull me from the grips of death.

The Spotlight

I was always naturally funny and the center of attention. I was voted class clown in both eighth grade and my senior year of high school. Unfortunately, my father was not too proud of my talents. When I told him I was voted class clown my senior year, his words were, “Great, a clown; what a way to be remembered!” I felt I let him down, so I didn’t show up for picture day, thus turning my clown crown over to the runner up, Peter!

Like many young men, I always sought my father’s approval. I wanted to prove that I was a man so I enlisted into the U.S. Marine Corps. My first day in boot camp I remember thinking I should have joined the Air Force or the Salvation Army. But not even the Marine Corps could kill my silly ways. I just learned how to be more sneaky and stealthy with my humor. In a way, I became the special forces of comedy. In boot camp I could make guys laugh when the drill instructors were not looking and when they would turn around on hearing someone goofing off, it was like it never happened.

I spent four years in the Marines assigned to an infantry battalion. After the Marines, I went into public service where I served as a police officer and a firefighter for 10 years. I loved both of these professions, but the law enforcement experience was short-lived. Although I was once awarded Officer of the Month, law enforcement wasn’t meant to be for me. When the police show up on scene, they are there to diffuse the situation. When I would show up, I would just make everything worse. I needed a job where I could be who I was, help people, and play pranks on my coworkers with no repercussions. I was born to be a firefighter; I had been training for it my entire life!

I was a firefighter for more than eight years and loved everything about the job. I couldn’t believe we were actually paid to have that much fun on the job. I soon found my calling as the firehouse clown. We always had fun and anyone who worked with me will tell you they had to sleep with one eye open; no one was safe.

In 2005, I started flirting with standup comedy on the side for fun. I would even pay guys to cover my shift for a few hours here and there so I could do open mics. I never thought in a million years I would become a professional comedian touring all over the country. I wanted to have a 30-year career as a firefighter. If I had it my way, I would still be on that rig today.

The Night

June 18, 2007, was the day my life changed forever. While I was at a golf tournament held by the Charleston Fire Department for a fallen brother, word spread that the Sofa Super Store was on fire. In firefighter fashion, many of us went racing to see if we could help.

When I arrived I did not have my gear with me; it was at my firehouse and I had sent my girlfriend to grab it. While waiting for her to return, I learned that we had several guys missing inside of this massive fireball. My heart sank into my stomach as I watched the building collapse. There was nothing anyone could do. Whoever was inside wasn’t coming out. My girlfriend soon returned with my gear and as the evening drew on we started learning of the guys who were inside. One of the missing was my good friend Louis Mulkey. Louis was my engineer at Engine 6 when I came on the job. He had since been promoted to the captain of Engine 15. Louis taught me everything I knew about firefighting. I loved him-everyone did!

Once most of the flames were knocked down, one of our battalion chiefs asked for volunteers to go inside and help recover our fallen brothers. I was first in line. I honestly felt that I would be able to find someone and bring them out alive. I was so wrong. While crawling through the twisted collapsed steel and choking on the still very present smoke, I saw something that caught my eye. As I crawled closer, I realized it was one of our guys. I knew immediately we were not going to find anyone alive. I will never be able to explain the condition we found them in; those images are forever ingrained into my mind. To this day, I wake up in the middle of the night seeing them. I’m scared to go to sleep some nights because of this.

We would eventually locate nine of our brothers. We stayed in the building with them all night. As the smoke finally dissipated, the coroner was brought in to help partially and unofficially identify and record the position where their bodies lay via GPS.

My biggest regret in life to this point is volunteering to go into that building and seeing them that way. My biggest honor in life to this point is in fact volunteering to go into that building and being able to carry my brothers out. It’s a very emotional thing, even as I sit here seven years later typing this while wiping the tears away.

After Effects

Following what I saw that night, I was later diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, and major depression. All of the horrible things I have seen and experienced over the years were finally taking their toll on my mental health. I was binge drinking and having nonstop thoughts of suicide. I felt guilty for being alive and for even being able to breath.

My productivity at work decreased, and I was always in a bad mood. I began putting myself into dangerous situations on fire calls hoping that fate would take me as it took my brothers. I was constantly on edge and anything would set me off. I became a completely different person. I was constantly stirring the pot and being an instigator. Looking back, it’s clear I was lashing out, much like a mistreated child would. All of the signs and symptoms were there; I just failed to recognize or refused to accept them.

In March 2010, I was involved in a physical altercation at my firehouse that couldn’t be swept under the rug. One of our guys put a coffee mug on our fallen brothers’ monument outside of our firehouse and I saw this as a blatant sign of disrespect to them. I threw his cup to the ground and smashed it into a million pieces. Another friend of mine told me that I was being a jerk and I felt as if he were defending the other firefighter’s actions. From there it just went downhill, as I pretty much fought my entire firehouse. That was my last day on the job.

After 14 years of belonging to a team, I was alone. With what I was going through, I was at my most vulnerable and dangerous point. At that time in my life, the only thing that truly made me feel good was laughter. Being able to get on stage in front of a room full of strangers and just make them laugh helped me. Laughter became a drug to me; it produced a high that I cannot explain. I chased laughter all over the country, but no matter how fast or how far I ran, my demons kept up with me; I couldn’t outrun them.

Healing

I kept waiting for time to heal my wounds, and I wasn’t making the effort to heal myself. I realized no one was coming to rescue me and time was running out. I had to do this on my own, so I made a choice. I decided to quit feeling sorry for myself. I decided to quit drinking cold turkey. I had to displace the negative no matter what it took, so that’s what I did. I wanted to honor my fallen brothers, not drown their memories in alcohol and sorrow.

I started seeing my therapist more and opening up about my experiences. I realized that talking about my feelings really helped me. By sharing my story, I hope to make an impact on others who may be experiencing similar struggles. If it helps just one of our own, it was worth sharing. I want to express that it’s okay to feel what you may be feeling and it’s okay to open up and talk about it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Our job is not a competition of who can see and handle the most tragedy. Our job is about helping others, and it starts with helping our own!

Post-traumatic stress is real, it is here, and it will kill you and everything you love if you let it. Your only protection against it is your awareness of the signs and symptoms that it presents in yourself and your coworkers and how you choose to deal with it.

Using that same sense of humor that I gained over a 14-year career, I now serve on a different stage as a standup comedian. Rather than being behind the spotlights, these days I am in front of them performing on some of comedy’s biggest stages 30 to 40 weeks per year. I no longer use the PA system to calm crowds; instead, I use it to bring smiles to their faces.

Although I no longer wear the uniform, I will always support the brotherhood. I’m proud to announce that in April 2015, I will be performing a fundraiser comedy show at FDIC in Indianapolis for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. I hope to see many of you at this event that supports such a great cause.

To find out when Travis will be performing near you, visit www.funnyunderfire.com, or connect with him via Twitter (@travishowze) or Facebook.

Sidebar – One on One with Erich Roden, FireRescue Editor in Chief

Roden: What organization do you currently belong to that aims to support and help firefighters going through experiences similar to yours?

Howze: I have recently joined the advisory committee for the Rosecrance Florian Program. This is a great program that is addressing substance abuse and mental health issues within the firefighter and paramedic communities.

Roden: Describe what the comedy circuit is like and how you would like comedy to keep you connected to the fire service.

Howze: The comedy circuit is a very brutal business. It’s nonstop traveling, living out of hotels and suitcases 30 to 40 weeks per year, far away from family. In a sense, the fire service prepared me for being away one-third of the year, but now I’m away two-thirds of the year. So it’s kind of like I’m always working back to back 48s. As my career continues to grow, I want it to grow with the fire service so I can stay connected to what truly means so much to me.

Roden: What are your future goals in life, comedy, and the fire service?

Howze: My number one goal is to become the best person that I can be and hopefully influence my children through leading by example. With comedy, I hope to become our voice and be in a position where I can make a direct impact in the fire service by giving back to my brothers and sisters, whether that is through laughter, mental health awareness, or education. I hope to build lasting bonds and friendships with those I am proud to call my brethren.