The recent premiere of Citizenfour, a probing documentary about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, has again raised questions about what goes on inside the agency’s fortress-like compound at Fort Meade, Maryland. How the NSA’s mostly anonymous workforce have handled the spotlight on their activities is not one of them.
But if you did ask about how people are weathering the controversy at Fort Meade, one answer would be Stephen Rice. A special agent for the NSA’s Security Division, Rice is also a wounded Iraq veteran—and a standup comic, whose humor often revolves around surviving adversity with laughter.
Rice, who lost his leg from an IED near Baghdad in 2003, recently recounted walking around his NSA office yelling, “Where’s my left foot? Somebody’s taken my left foot.”
After his injury, he went through a very painful year of limb salvage, involving repeated surgeries as doctors attempted to save his leg. He eventually made the decision to have it amputated. “I felt better immediately,” he says. “I feel like that’s why I’m able to joke about it and talk about it openly.”
Last year Rice was featured in Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor, a documentary centered on veterans performing standup about their injuries. When asked why he participated in the series, he says, “I think I got bored.” But Rice is happy he did, since he likely would have never pursued standup without the help of the documentary. “It kind of forced you to try something that you were scared of,” he says.
Among his many memorable jokes, there was one that made a resounding impression. Rice stands at the front of a small stage and says calmly, “Back in 2003 I was involved in a pretty aggressive study-abroad program with the United States Army in Baghdad, Iraq.” He takes a moment, leans forward, and declares loudly, “It didn’t go well.”
Rice says the negative attention the NSA has received has affected office morale, but it has also served to strengthen his coworkers’ relationships, making them more like a family. “One of the ways we get through the day is we joke with each other. We try to make each other laugh,” says Rice, currently a manager in the NSA’s polygraph division.
He says there’s a true cross-section of the population at the NSA, ranging from very introverted to very extroverted. But the majority of their humor is very routine. “It’s normal office banter,” he says, “It’s, ‘Oh wow, my three-year-old pooped on my new leather jacket.’”
During an hourlong speech for his coworkers last month, Rice showed his baby picture. “Everybody starts out as a cute baby,” he told the audience of advanced computer experts, following with a picture of himself as an overweight eighth-grader wearing an awkward pair of glasses. “But before long we’ve got to come up with another plan to be successful,” he said.
But according to Rice, humor is not only a common occurrence in his office, it’s a necessity. “We’re doing our best to protect the United States, and sometimes you just have to laugh at each other to get through the day.”