2012-07-13 / Neighbors
A touch of magical therapy
Simi Valley veteran uses hobby to connect with wounded warriors
A former Navy man who served in and was injured during the Gulf War, Jerry Foster knows firsthand the challenges veterans face.
Getting re-accustomed to everyday life. Fighting for VA benefi ts. Finding a reason to smile.
For Foster, helping his fellow vets, young and old, navigate this process has become his mission, though he has his own way of accomplishing it: through magic.
“I go in, joke around, do magic for everybody and then sit down and have a heart-to-heart,” said the 56-year-old Simi Valley resident, who is known in magic circles as “The Demented Magician” due to his bizarre, off-the-wall style that mixes different types of magic.
A native New Yorker—his accent is a dead giveaway—Foster began studying the arcane arts as a youngster. He didn’t much like to read, but he relished going to the library in Long Island to check out magic books.
But it wasn’t until his family moved to Virginia when he was 15 that he bought his first props and performed his first magic show at a child’s birthday party.
Though he loved magic, he didn’t pursue it as a career.
Instead, he earned a degree in photography and broadcast journalism from West Virginia’s Marshall University in 1979. But when job offers weren’t coming in as he had hoped, Foster made a bold and drastic career change— he joined the Navy.
Foster put in 22 years, retiring as a commander in 2002 due to injuries he sustained during tours in the Gulf War and Desert Storm. The master EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) technician—a special operations job—has two Purple Hearts: one from a bullet wound and one from a land mine.
“The second one was the one that tore me up. That was a mine that I lost an EOD man to. He was ahead, I was behind,” Foster said. “It tore my legs to pieces.”
The “sand sailor,” as he was referred to back then, was able to keep his legs, though he had to go through dozens of reconstructive surgeries.
While the injury stole his ease of mobility, it didn’t take away Foster’s sense of humor.
Even during difficult days in the Navy, Foster employed his magic to entertain and soothe his comrades.
“I was doing magic in the Navy when I could, to break the tensions,” he said. “The pressure was intense because any man could possibly be killed out there.”
He said it was his comedic magic that helped him develop relationships with the men he was leading.
“That’s how you build up that bond with them,” he said.
Still, it wasn’t until a few years ago that he had the idea of performing for veterans—a kind of “magical therapy.”
While still living in Virginia, Foster started volunteering with his local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans. He would visit vets at area military hospitals, such as Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond and the now-closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and educate them about the VA, their benefits and what to expect once they got out of the military and back into society.
“I let them know what it’s going to be like when they get out because I’ve been through it,” said Foster, who has from posttraumatic stress disorder. “I know what these guys are going to face (especially) if these guys have any kind of traumatic experience.”
In doing these bed-to-bed visits, Foster realized his magic could help break down walls and bring a little light and levity—and maybe even hope—to the patients in the hospital beds, whose injuries went more than skin deep.
“I said, you know, I can make a difference because these kids are coming home and they are messed up very badly, emotionally.”
Foster remembers the first time he did magic for one of these vets—an elderly World War II vet in the hospice unit at McGuire.
“It was like the biggest emotional roller coaster I went on that first day,” Foster said of the 2005 meeting. “It was real hard on me, it was tough.”
Foster floated a paper rose in front of the man. Even though the vet was heavily medicated, Foster could tell he enjoyed the trick, and that reaction, no matter how slight, spurred the magician to keep going.
“You need interaction, reaction and a smile. If I can get those three elements out of a veteran, I know (my program) will work,” he said, adding, “I got some of these guys laughing so hard.”
After moving to Simi in 2009, Foster continued his work, performing for hundreds of vets at the fifth annual “Salute to Arms” Memorial Day luncheon in 2010.
Foster has had trouble getting authorization to perform his “walk around” magic at the VA hospital in West Los Angeles, but he continues to seek out opportunities to perform for veterans whenever and wherever he can, including at local nursing homes.
While he tests out his material every Monday night at a comedy club in Canoga Park, Foster doesn’t make any money off his hobby.
His passion is using his magical talents to serve others—all the shows he does for veterans he does for free.
When asked why he loves magic so much, Foster’s answer reveals why he dedicates his time to performing for veterans who, like him, tend to keep their emotions and experiences bottled up inside.
“I think what I like most about it is the interaction with people,” he said.
“And it’s a great icebreaker in any situation.”
To contact Foster about performing for a local veterans group, email email@example.com.