Comedian Rob Riggle accepted a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1990 with the intent of earning a pilot’s Wings of Gold, but once he got to flight school in Pensacola it hit him that the lengthy commitment was going to keep him from realizing his dream of doing stand up.
Listen to our conversation with Rob on the We Are The Mighty Podcast:
“If I had continued flying I didn’t see how I would be able to take my shot at comedy,” Riggle says. “I left flight school and became a public affairs officer.”
After nine years on active duty that included stateside tours at Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune, and Corpus Christi and overseas tours in Liberia and Albania (where he helped build refugee camps for those displaced by the fighting in Kosovo), Riggle transferred to the Marine Corps Reserve. He moved to New York City to pursue his comedy career and drilled with Marine Training Unit 17 — the only reserve unit in Manhattan.
And then 9/11 happened.
“I got a call from my CO and was ordered to report to One Police Plaza first thing in the morning on Sept. 12,” Riggle says. “I worked on the bucket brigades moving rubble by hand.”
For a week he worked 12-on-12-off, clearing the twisted wreckage that was piled six stories high around where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had proudly stood just days before. On the seventh day, the operation was changed from search-and-rescue to search-and-recovery. With all hope gone that more victims might be found alive among the concrete and steel and with the danger of more collapses gone, the heavy machinery was brought in to remove the rest.
Riggle was exhausted and emotionally spent. He’d seen enough.
“Like most Americans, I was pissed off,” he says. “But as a Marine captain, I could do something about it. I put my hand in the air and told my commanding officer, ‘put me in this thing.’ And so he did.”
Now watch Rob Riggle fly with the Blue Angels:
Riggle received orders on Nov. 10 — the Marine Corps birthday — and a week later he reported to CENTCOM in Tampa for training and two weeks after that he was on his way to the war.
“About 20 days from the time I got my orders I was on my way to Afghanistan,” Riggle recalls. “That’s why you have reserves.”
He did two rotations into Afghanistan during his year back on active duty, working out of the Joint Operations Center because he had top secret security clearance. He was part of Operation Anaconda — the first major offensive using a large number of conventional troops — and other major campaigns during that time.
“When my year was up I moved back to New York City and ran the marathon,” he recalls.
The year after that he was added to the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” And the rest is American comedy history.
“I earned the title Marine, no one gave it to me,” Riggle says when asked to sum up his military career. “I’ll be proud of that as long as I’m alive.”