Instead of Dying (by Maureen Doallas)

I used to think poets were high brow types. People who would look down their noses at me with disdain. I don’t think that anymore. Getting to know Maureen Doallas and other gifted poets and writers through blogs and twitter has been much fun for me. Because much to my surprise and delight, they’re very down to earth and just a little on the crazy side. Which, in my book, is a very redeeming quality.

Here’s Maureen:

This is the time of year when some seriously, and many not, set about making resolutions, stating their intentions to do something, accomplish something, during the coming new year: perhaps learn a new language, volunteer at a local shelter, be kinder, try harder, make amends to someone.

This is a story that doesn’t need that kind of resolution. It’s about a beginning following an ending that failed to happen.

The story begins where he starts: by making fun of himself in front of people who go to a comedy club for drinks and maybe a good laugh, if he’s having a good night. Giving them all he’s got is just his way of getting the obvious out of the way.

What’s obvious he acquired in 2007, some place in Iraq we won’t ever be.

What’s obvious is his face, a tracery, a pattern of lines pieced together like a collage, the only kind of art his doctors could make when the U.S. Army convoy truck he was driving lumbered too near an unseen roadside bomb.

His face is a map of hope. It reflects what’s worth having the intention to do, which is to live, to give back and not up.

His burn scar covers most of his face and head. His ears are missing a few pieces. His left eye doesn’t open well because of scar tissue. He could be described as bald but for the few hairs that still grow in place. He gave up his left hand and forearm below the elbow. His body took a lot of fire.

Because the bomb happened, his body gave up a lot. What he didn’t give up was his self, which found a way to turn what might have been an ending into an awareness of what can be learned when a person finds and uses the strength to drive on.

The ending that we know happens over there never did in his case. Staff Sgt. Robert Henline didn’t die of wounds received in Operation Iraqi Freedom. There is no marker in any military cemetery bearing his name and rank and the year of his birth and death.

Instead of dying, Bobby Henline lived and began telling jokes.

He started during his months of recovery in the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, Texas. He kept going through dozens of surgeries and many months more of physical therapy — the kind none of us can imagine taking for 15 minutes, let alone days at a stretch.

As Henline is quoted as saying, “So, of course, the first thing I do is usually get the pink elephant out of the room and make fun of the way I look. I’ll start off with a zombie joke. . . .”

Of course; haven’t you ever made fun of the way you looked? And gotten a laugh, too?

As Henline’s quick to add, “I always try to get that out of the way first, to let them know it’s OK to laugh at me.”

They do laugh. They laugh during open-mike night at San Antonio’s Rivercenter Comedy Club, where Henline goes as soon as Friday comes around. The club is the place an aspiring comic best starts out when, as Henline tells it, the only other position open to you is “a modeling job at the Halloween Super Store.”

The club is where laughs help heal invisible wounds whose pain is let out in the words that reverberate through a microphone. It’s different from Army gigs, no doubt, but it’s a place to practice a new kind of occupation. It’s a place for focusing on a new routine that offers a way to get past the result of an ending that never happened. It’s a place where we learn, even while we’re laughing, that a negative can be positive, too.

Henline, like the men I wrote about who create art from their uniforms, shows us that stuff happens and life goes on, that hope and strength and something ineffable can be brought from the inside out and make a difference.

The difference Henline is making doesn’t take a New Year’s resolution. Or need one.

Purple Heart recipient Robert Henline, age 38, is married and has three children.

This post is inspired by visits to Henline’s MySpace Page and his blog, which is accessible there. You will find many pictures of Henline on that MySpace page.

Henline is the subject of numerous profiles, including a series of interviews with NPR, as well as OperationHomeFrontOnline, Texas Public Radio, and MySA Military.

A moving YouTube presentation, also available on Henline’s MySpace page, is here:


To read more from Maureen, please visit her at Writing Without Paper and follow her on twitter at @Doallas.

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13 Responses to “Instead of Dying (by Maureen Doallas)”

  1. L.T. Elliot January 6, 2010 at 3:52 am #

    >This is it. This is exactly what life should be–lived and appreciated. Fears faced through pain and brought out into sunlight. I'm so humbled by our servicemen and women. They give up so much, do so much. Thank you isn't enough. I salute both Henline's sacrifice and his service. What an amazing man.

  2. Glynn January 6, 2010 at 7:39 am #

    >A beautiful story, told beautifully and well.

  3. Bradley J. Moore January 6, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    >Maureen – You always point us to these interesting and powerful stories of hope. This one is especially so.

  4. Maureen January 6, 2010 at 9:02 am #

    >L.T., Glynn, Brad: Thank you. I spent quite a bit of time on Henline's site and I've watched the YouTube video at least three times, and each of those times I come away more amazed than ever at this kind of resilience, at that not-giving-up attitude Henline has. To stand up in front of people, as Henline does, and crack jokes. . . well, he's blessed with something most of us don't have.

    Henline has an extraordinarily strong family, too. One of his daughters recently won an award. A few stories have been written about her.

    Hope: I don't think you can ever have too much hope.

  5. M.L. Gallagher January 6, 2010 at 9:32 am #

    >Maureen — as always — inspiring and beautiful.

    Thank you. I am humbled by his passion to live life from the inside out.

  6. Joyce Wycoff January 6, 2010 at 9:34 am #

    >Maureen … thanks for another great story. I quit making new year's resolutions several years ago … but I've just made one to be as courageous about life as Robert Henline. May we also find our way to peace and stop putting our brave service people in harms way.

  7. Maureen January 6, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    >Louise and Joyce, as always, you follow me wherever I wander. Thank you for coming here today and reading and commenting. Henline's story is a standout for so many reasons that what we see of his image on that first introduction becomes invisible. Henline embodies what O'Donohue meant when he wrote, "The invisible within us finds a form, and comes to expression. . . ."

  8. Corinne January 6, 2010 at 11:42 am #

    >What an inspiring story. I needed to read this today – thank you!

  9. jasonS January 6, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    >Goes to show anyone- ANYONE- can overcome and not be defined by their circumstances. Thank you for this amazing story of living life to the fullest and not looking back.

  10. Kathleen January 6, 2010 at 1:38 pm #

    >He's a Braveheart. Makes me want to quit whining. Thx.

  11. Maureen January 6, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    >Thank you Corinne, Jason, and Kathleen. I could go weeks on the inspiration I get from this man. And though I doubt he'd say it, his story, I think, holds us up to our own mirrors, forcing us to look at ourselves and ask: Could we do this? What matters and, more important, what doesn't?

  12. nAncY January 6, 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    >this man is very giving. i am amazed at anyone that can make people laugh. thank God for giving him what he needs to live from the inside, from the heart.

  13. Robin Arnold January 6, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    >This is one of those "walk a mile in my shoes" stories that smacks me in my whiney face.

    BAMC-Brooke Army Medical Center is an awesome place at Fort Sam Houston on the Northeast side of SA. It's growing because of the need, and some transfer of services to San Antonio. The staff are innovative as well as dedicated. I'm always proud of our service men and women but I'm also proud of those who care for them at places like BAMC.

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