Ali Taylor never would have guessed that the end of her husband’s military career would prompt her to try improv: The last time she attempted any type of acting was as a middle-school theater student. But there she was, at a five-day event held at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam near Honolulu for wounded Air Force members and their caregivers, learning the core improv concept of “Yes, and,” and realizing it now applied to her life.
Her husband, Staff Sgt. Brandon Cipolla, had recently been admitted to the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program due to service-related injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic migraine headaches, and a shoulder injury requiring several surgeries. Taylor had been appointed his caregiver as part of the program, yet was still working full-time as an executive chef at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. “There’s not a lot of smiling and laughing when you’re in a situation like we are,” Taylor said.
When Cipolla applied to attend the CARE event (which encompasses all of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program’s areas of support) to prepare for his upcoming medical retirement and transition, Taylor wasn’t sure what to expect. However, she looked forward to a brief respite from their daily routine, as well as the opportunity to find support and camaraderie from others in the same position.
Each day, while Cipolla participated in mock interviews and worked on other job-search skills, Taylor took classes, including financial planning and navigating the military’s insurance programs. At night, she immersed herself in improv workshops, one of several offerings (along with more traditional choices like yoga, journaling, and painting) designed to help participants. Though all workshops are optional, the program encourages caregivers and injured service members to attend as part of their path back to wellness.
While improv specifically may seem a surprising choice for those struggling to transition to life after injury, it’s now part of the resiliency programming the Air Force offers its Wounded Warriors (the term the United States Armed Forces uses to describe injured service members) and their caregivers. Aaron Moffett, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who runs the resiliency program, noted that the resiliency workshops take a holistic approach to teaching life skills. With improv, “it’s really a communication skill,” he explained. “You have to listen to your partner and think quickly: ‘How does what I’m doing relate to what that person just said, and how do I communicate back to that person?’”
The tone is set on the very first day by retired Staff Sgt. and Air Force medic BJ Lange, an actor and comedian who developed the curriculum and launched the improv workshops last year. Lange makes a point of letting participants know that he’s not there as a military training instructor, but as someone who’s committed to helping them have fun on their path toward healing.
Lange starts off by sharing his own story: His traumatic brain injury, two bouts with testicular cancer, struggles with depression and anxiety, and his own participation in the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. “When my cancer returned, I found myself getting deeper and deeper into depression,” he said. “I had to look back at all of these things I had been teaching for so long about facing my fear.”
In creating the program, Lange looked to the research and overall approach of applied improv, where collaborative exercises are used as a tool for personal or professional growth. While improved listening skills, problem solving, and thinking outside the box are all benefits of the program, one of the most important takeaways is the chance for participants to be with others who are facing similar struggles – and to have fun.
“Teambuilding, camaraderie, and trust in one another: These are all things that can be broken when you’re going through heavy mental and physical adversity,” Lange explained. “I don’t teach the warriors and their caregivers how to be funny; I don’t teach them how to perform. I teach them how to use these skills [and] how they can use them to rebuild their lives.”
But it’s not always fun, laughter and games. At one workshop when everyone was lying on the ground at the start of a new scene, Lange recalled that the setup “looked like dead bodies,” to one of the wounded service members. When flashbacks like this happen, Lange stops the action. The group took time to discuss the participant’s observation and talk about other possible ways to view the scenario before moving forward.
Participants often become more comfortable over the course of the week, whether it’s being able to open up about their stories or even just make eye contact, which can be a struggle for those who have suffered trauma. “We talk a lot about interpersonal skills,” Lange said. “[When you retreat] into your head – from depression, anxiety or a TBI – you look down a lot.”
For some, it’s about being able to tap into what it’s like to feel happy again. Lange recalled one participant who had sustained a traumatic brain injury during his service in Afghanistan and rarely spoke, relying on his wife to communicate for him. At the end of the week, she told Lange that her husband’s participation in the improv workshops was the first time she’d seen him smile since his injury.
This year, Lange expects to teach workshops around the country and in Germany as part of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program’s CARE events. With about 8,000 participants in the program (not including caregivers), he knows he won’t be able to reach all of them. But for those who have taken his workshop, like Taylor, the skills are ones that carry over into their daily lives, whether it’s honing the flexibility to work with a new situation or being open to finding some humor in it.
“The concept of ‘Yes, and’ is that you work with what you’ve been given: You carry on and keep going,” says Taylor, whose husband recently took a new job requiring them to relocate to Olympia, Wash. “That’s our marriage.”