BJ Lange of A Veteran In Hollywood: Five Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military

Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine
Published in
13 min readMay 14, 2024

--

You Can Be A Leader — You may not have the title, but if you have the heart, you can be a leader. Use your resilience, flexibility, dependability, and good communication to shine. I didn’t ask to become an element leader in basic training or class leader in my Air Force medic program, but because of my age (and subsequent life experience) it allowed me to use these skills and become selected.

As a part of our series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, we had the pleasure of interviewing BJ Lange.

BJ Lange, Actor, Comedian, Host, Teacher (SAG-AFTRA, AEA, AICE)

⭐ USAF Medic (Ret.)

BJ has been seen on General Hospital, MTV, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The Prank Panel. BJ is a graduate of The Second City, where he is now an instructor. BJ was medically retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve following a battle with testicular cancer which opened some unexpected doors. A believer in the strength of “yes, and,” he is also an alumnus of iO West and UCBTLA, and board member of The Ledge Theatre. BJ is the applied improv comedy resiliency coach for the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program (AFW2).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Here’s some of my backstory with family influences along the way.

I was born and raised in north St. Louis, MO (Glasgow Village). My parents divorced after I was born, so I spent my summer breaks with my mom in Texas between the cities of Yoakum, Daingerfield, and Clute. I have three older brothers, a younger brother, and two younger sisters. I was the youngest for 13 years.

My stepmother, Geraldine, was the authoritarian growing up. She wore the pants. But she didn’t just teach me right from wrong and hand down discipline — she encouraged me to follow my dreams. “Ger” was a graphic designer and graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute. She is undoubtedly where I get my artistic spirit.

My dad, Jerry, was always the life of the party. A true showman with the gift of gab. A man with a joke at the ready, he is where I got my love of comedy and my work ethic. I still think my dad would be a great improviser. Sadly, he never followed a professional career in performing arts, but he was very successful in his sales jobs.

My Mom, Leah, loves a road trip. Even at 72, she’s planning on one! She will (and has) pawned a ring to get enough gas money for a road trip full of memories. She is where I get my adventurous (and sometimes nomadic) spirit.

I believe in love in large part to my grandparents Eugene and Delores Lange. Grandpa Lange was a WWII U.S. Navy veteran who later joined the U.S. Army Reserve. I think he is the reason why I wanted to be of service. These two were such great people. They were married for over 60 years.

I was always following my dad’s footsteps to be the goofball. I was determined to understand what is funny, and why something is funny. What else could I do to be more funny? My studies began when I was young watching Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, movies by Leslie Nielsen, Mel Brooks, and the Three Stooges, amongst many others. In Living Color, Kids in the Hall, and Star Trek: The Next Generation also had huge impacts on me.

I was active in theater throughout middle and high school and went off to college to study acting.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a little about the unique work that you are doing?

I love using my talents to help other people. I absolutely believe the arts can help us heal.

Teaching applied improv in the Wellness & Resiliency Program of Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) allows me to utilize my years of improv, sketch, and theater experience to bring discovery, laughter, connection and play to wounded, ill, and injured servicemembers and their caregivers. These participants often have a tremendous amount of stressors in their life. Many have both visible and invisible wounds that affect their physical and mental abilities. More often than not, this puts them in a position to simply forget how to “play”. Imagine being in a situation with a new life changing diagnosis which impacts everything in your life that you simply forget the most basic of human connection. Play.

Using improv comedy games, exercises, and Spolin techniques, I build up life and resiliency skills through these workshops. In one of my workshops in 2019 I met a wounded warrior who was enrolled in the program following an attempt at taking her own life. She had many disabilities, most notably a traumatic brain injury. We spent many evening workshops together over the week. Her confidence grew. She began to connect with the others in her ensemble and then really laugh. Before long she was playing and for a short while not thinking about her life off the stage. She had become present and mindful to her partners and the scene at hand. She later shared that I “saved her life.” While I was the conduit for her discovery, I believe applied improv and theatre is what saved her.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

With a full-time Hollywood acting career at hand and after spending years of thinking about serving, I enlisted on my 35th birthday into the Air Force Reserve. I did a few drill weekends at my USAFR unit (452d AMDS) at March ARB before being selected as an element leader and completing Basic Military Training at JBSA Lackland AFB, TX.

JBSA Fort Sam Houston then became my home for almost a year in tech school as I completed the BMTCP (Basic Medical Technician and Corpsman Program) at the Medical Education and Training Campus (METC). This included an NREMT certification plus basic and intermediate nursing program. I graduated as a class leader in March of 2016 and went on to my clinical rotations.

Soon I was rotating through shifts in the ER, OR, and other clinics at San Antonio Military Medical Center (Formerly Brooke Army Medical Center). I also worked 9–1–1 ambulance services, clinics at the Reid Trainee Health Clinic at Lackland AFB, and rotations throughout Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Care Center and Urgent Care.

I learned so much. To say I was proud would be the understatement of the century. Some of my highlights include my first time (days after graduating) performing CPR on a patient and assisting during a thoracotomy, unloading trauma patients from the hospital rooftop helipad, and bringing warm blankets to elderly patients in the bone marrow transplant clinic. One of my not so favorite memories is learning the hard way that an unconscious patient with gurgling sounds means you better move quickly. I never got the smell out of my boots.

Unfortunately, I received a cancer diagnosis which led to surgery and chemotherapy. Just 517 days after enlisting I was put through a medical evaluation board and placed on temporary medical retirement. While on TDRL during the summer of 2017, my cancer relapsed into my lymphatic system and I underwent weeks of radiation therapy that left me with more mental and physical issues. I was held on temporary retirement for 3.5 years and in 2020 I was permanently medically retired (PDRL).

While I never wish to get cancer again, getting cancer was one of the best things to ever happen to me. I was enrolled into the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program which opened the doors to so many things. I participated in adaptive sports at a time I felt I had lost everything and wasn’t “strong” anymore. I then became an ambassador and mentor in AFW2. Even better, I became the comedy coach in this program, which allowed me to share my passion with fellow wounded warriors.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

While I didn’t know it at the time, being medically retired was the right thing for me. I learned and grew a lot from both my testicular cancer journey and my short military career. My takeaway was trying to see what the silver lining was. I’m not saying it’s easy to see all the time, but believe me there is one. I found myself falling back on my comedy experience to deal with hard topics. I completely rewrote my stand-up comedy jokes to focus on the harsh reality of my cancer diagnosis but found out that it also had an unintentional byproduct. Awareness. My military and cancer journeys both gave me a new filter to see life through.

Before long I was sharing with audiences “one benefit of having testicular cancer is I’m 50% less likely to zip my nut up in my pants”.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

Let me start off by saying that I am absolutely in no way a hero, and while this story didn’t happen while I was in the Air Force, I was able to react in large part because of my military and medical training.

On a summer evening of 2022 I was involved in a murder. Let me explain.

As I was leaving the music store off Hollywood Boulevard shots rang out and a car sped by me only to crash into five parked cars. I quickly notified 9–1–1 and worked my way down to the carnage. The mangled car had an unconscious victim behind the wheel who was bleeding out. After getting the victim out of the car I attempted to perform a rapid trauma assessment and perform CPR on him. Minutes later, police and EMS eventually arrived but, unfortunately, he did not survive.

I believe because of both my military and medical training, I was able to respond to this chaotic situation as hundreds of passerby Hollywood tourists fled the scene. While I humbly received an American Legion Heroism Medal for my actions that day, I’m not a hero here. I’m just a man who used his training to do what needed to be done.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

I believe “hero” has multiple meanings. One meaning is someone who steps up to do what needs to be done. This could be in times of crisis, or just when justice needs to prevail. I think about someone who stands up for the less fortunate or the unable. Someone who puts their life on the line for others. I also acknowledge small acts of heroism, like a mother who puts a little note in the lunch box for the kid at school.

Naturally, I believe a hero also includes someone who has given the ultimate sacrifice for others.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

No. While I believe the mainstream recognition of heroes includes this definition, I don’t think it’s exclusive to this.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”?

1 . You CAN Handle It

This is closely related to being calm under pressure as my Hollywood Boulevard story above explains, but it’s also worth noting that although it may seem like a lot of stress in your life, give yourself the mantra that you can do it. I realize sometimes this is easier said than done. Just continue to eat the apple one bite at a time. Week one of boot camp is a lot of pressure, and soon you graduate looking good and feeling great because you did it.

2 . Teamwork

I love teamwork because I believe in the art of collaboration and being a member of an ensemble. Recognizing the benefits of diversity and group dynamics to make them work for a common goal. You learn this in basic training. Before long the whole group is working as a well-oiled machine.

3 . Attention To Detail

This is probably one of the most drilled things into your brain in Air Force basic training and I’d imagine any military branch. It absolutely makes sense no matter what your job is. As a medic, I need to focus on all the symptoms my patient is telling me. Did I skip over a step in my medical assessment and remember to come back to my flow? Is it important that the patient told me they ate an egg salad last night? I believe being more mindful in your work aids in attention to detail and helps you become more situationally aware under pressure. To this end, I believe my background in improv comedy helped me stay focused and keep my cool in high-stress environments.

4 . Be A Good Human

Contribute to the team. Be helpful. Be supportive. Be kind. Be accountable. Everyone wants to work with good people.

5 . You Can Be A Leader

You may not have the title, but if you have the heart, you can be a leader. Use your resilience, flexibility, dependability, and good communication to shine. I didn’t ask to become an element leader in basic training or class leader in my Air Force medic program, but because of my age (and subsequent life experience) it allowed me to use these skills and become selected.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

I believe my experience in the military fortified things about myself. Strength. Confidence. Skills.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

While my military service was minimal and cut short, I learned a lot and I believe the adversity that I experienced set me up for greater things outside the military.

Like many veterans, I still struggle with my service. While not ashamed, I felt a lot of loss of identity from my military career being stripped away against my wishes and goals. I understand that it was beyond my control, but I sometimes find myself yearning for what I could have done and feel disappointed that I was unable to deploy. However, getting medically retired was one of the best things to have ever happened to me.

It allowed me to use my training in other avenues of my actor life. Because of my military medical training I often use my skills in Hollywood. I regularly work on FOX’s Lone Star, 9–1–1, and ABC’s The Rookie. I’m also appearing as a recurring paramedic on General Hospital. Last year I was cast as a paramedic opposite Johnny Knoxville and Gabourey Sidibe on The Prank Panel. I feel that my experience as an Air Force medic added value to my acting career.

Also thanks to my military service, I am able to serve on the SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles Military Committee, thus being further of service to my union siblings. If you are struggling, I suggest you get connected. There are amazing groups out there. Join a local American Legion. I find that this helps with the loss of camaraderie. If you miss being of service, consider volunteering and sharing your military experience to the cadets in Civil Air Patrol.

I also enjoy serving for wonderful organizations like VME (Veterans In Media & Entertainment) that exist for veterans like myself that work in the entertainment industry. If you are a fellow veteran that wishes to go down the comedy path — check out ASAP (Armed Services Arts Partnership) and take a free improv, sketch, or standup class! In Los Angeles, I encourage fellow actors who served to look up Warriors For Peace Theatre for free Shakespeare classes. The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, CA also has some outstanding veterans programs for local vets.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Most people don’t know I’m a disabled veteran. I use both my acting and comedy experience to drive change and advocacy for disabilities in Hollywood. This year for the 2024 Eastersals Disability Film Challenge I helped write and appear in “Wheelchair Money’’ a five-minute buddy comedy short film. The film was based on some truth after insurance denied a claim for a wheelchair for our director so the writing and creative team wanted to use social satire to say something back about the system. In the film, I play Gerald Douchet, the insurance agent. You could probably figure out this guy based on his last name.

This summer, I’ll be returning to work as a teaching artist with the Geffen Playhouse on their summer Veterans Cultural Identity Monologue Writing and Performance workshop series. Participants create a 5–7 minute monologue as part of the show dubbed “Beyond The Barracks”. Applications are about to close and we’ll embark on a journey of laughter, tears, and triumph. I was honored to co-direct last year and all I can say is that you have got to attend. It’s beautiful. The performance will be August 5th, 2024 in the Gil Cates Theatre.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Take an improv class. Even better, set your team up with a series of improv workshops and work with the facilitator to work on specific issues your team is having. Improv is for everyone.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Look for the strengths of your team. Promote from within, and remember just because you had to struggle to get where you are doesn’t mean others need to.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In addition to my family noted above, I’d like to thank Bill Chott. Bill (“The Ringer”, “This is Us,” “Wizards of Waverly Place”) was instrumental in my learning the foundations of improvisation. He was my first true improv mentor.

I’d also like to thank Viola Spolin for the inspiration.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I just aim to be a good man. I try my best to be a kind, caring, and compassionate artist.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Improv classes for everyone. I feel that if everyone took at least one weeklong improv class we’d have a much better world. If you are not sure why I’d suggest such a thing, you’ll have to take a class to see what you’re missing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In improv, we say mistakes are opportunities. Use that theory in your life. It wasn’t easy, but now I see how my cancer has served me in positive ways as well.

Instead of asking “Why is this happening to me?” ask yourself “Why is this happening for me?”

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

--

--