Retired San Diego Marine relies on dark humor to promote healing of wounded warriors

Preventing veteran suicide is the newest mission of retired San Diego Marine Capt. Donny O’Malley.

To do it, he’s capitalizing on a theme popularized by the long-running TV series “MASH” — military humor. Except O’Malley’s humor is not only irreverent, it is very dark and directly targets post 9/11 veterans.

O’Malley’s real name is Danny Maher, but he adopted the pseudonym Donny O’Malley in 2015 as the author of a satirical memoir, “Embarrassing Confessions of a Marine Lieutenant,” and creator of military parody videos. He subsequently launched a nonprofit group called Irreverent Warriors to help vets work through their emotional and mental trauma.

As a wounded warrior himself, O’Malley knows whereof he speaks. Although not torn apart by enemy fire, he suffered numerous physical injuries and was a member of Camp Pendleton’s Wounded Warrior Battalion.

While there, he began writing a cathartic blog that attracted a fan base. One of his followers was a young Camp Pendleton Marine who had lost both legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. O’Malley recalls getting a text message from him one day: “You’re doing God’s work. Your stories are the only thing in my life that can make me laugh hysterically. Don’t stop being raw and honest and never stop being youself.”

The Marine later killed himself. At his wake, O’Malley shed silent tears as the young man’s mother wailed over his casket, screaming: “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”

“I have to take action,” O’Malley vowed. “Maybe I can give her a reason why: He died so others can live.”
Ever since, he has been determined to do everything he can to prevent similar tragedies.

In 2017, he raised nearly $300,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to launch a video streaming service called Veteran TV, often referred to as VET Tv. Its motto: “The only TV network the U.S. government wants to ban, but can’t.”

O’Malley’s goal is to unite and uplift spirits through comedy skits that spotlight the dark secrets that veterans tend to keep locked inside.

For instance, one skit masqueraded as an infomercial for a night terror neck brace. It was designed for the wives of vets suffering from PTSD to protect them when their hallucinating husbands started strangling them in bed at night. O’Malley knows vets whose night terrors have helped destroy as many three marriages.

The sketch is delivered in a way to make viewers laugh hysterically. “If the humor is done right, you can get somebody to re-process an experience with a new emotion associated with it,” he says. Adding humor to the feelings of pain and sadness can be a step toward re-wiring the brain and jump-starting the healing process. Plus, a vet will often text a fellow vet about the comedy skit and build liaisons.

Initially, O’Malley played a key role in writing the VET Tv skits “Kill, Die, Laugh” and “A Grunt’s Life,” based on an infantry platoon in Afghanistan in 2008. Now he manages a team of writers.

VET Tv founder Donny O'Malley interviews combat trauma specialist Lauren Rich for a new mental health series.

On Veteran’s Day, the streaming network is launching a new, free web series, “Mental Hell and Wellness.” O’Malley serves as host and interviews psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professions about traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia and other combat-related symptoms.

COVID has made a bad situation worse because it separates people. “Social isolation is the one thing every vet I’ve known who killed themselves had in common at the end,” O’Malley says. “They were alone, living inside their own head, without a human connection.”

His nonprofit organization has been encouraging social interaction digitally — Zoom calls, playing games online — and two weekly Facebook Live sessions were added to VET Tv programming.

Humor remains the medicine of choice and offers a way to monetize the operation because people are willing to pay $5 a month for a subscription when entertainment is incorporated. Only three years after launching, the network has grown to 90,000 subscribers and 25 employees, O’Malley says.

The 14-segment “Mental Hell and Wellness” series, however, is being offered free to anyone on the website.

“Almost two dozen veterans are killing themselves every day,” O’Malley notes. “There’s a lot of talk about awareness, but the focus needs to be on prevention. We have to help someone put the gun down and choose to live, as opposed to ending it all.”

A young Alex Trebek aboard the U.S.S. Midway aircraft carrier while on a USO tour in 1988.

Trebek remembered: The passing of “Jeopardy” game show host Alex Trebek after a long battle with cancer triggered some U.S.S. Midway memories.

Before the aircraft carrier became a museum in San Diego, Trebek came aboard during a USO tour when the ship was homeported in Yokosuka, Japan.

Former crew member Perry Eichem Joiner recalled the 1988 visit and posted a photo of a young and authoritative Trebeck sitting at the news anchor desk in the KMID-TV studio where ship’s journalists broadcast newscasts for the ship’s crew. R.I.P., Alex Trebek.