"I'm trying to give back," Bobby Henline tells PEOPLE. "This is a great way to do it, through empowerment and food"

By Susan Keating
Updated March 08, 2016 01:25 PM
Credit: Courtesy Bobby Henline

In 2007, Bobby Henline survived a devastating explosion that killed the rest of the men in his Army vehicle in Iraq and burned more than 38 percent of his body.

Now, nine years and 40-plus surgeries later, Henline, 44, wants to pay his gratitude forward – by opening a restaurant that will employ other veterans and serve the community.

“I’m trying to give back,” Henline tells PEOPLE. “This is a great way to do it, through empowerment and food.”

Not just any form of food will do for the restaurant, either. Henline aims to serve his personal favorite meal: hamburgers.

“I love hamburgers,” Henline shares. “When I travel, I’ve always got to find that hole-in-the-wall burger place. They’re one of the joys of life.”

Overcoming Tragedy

On April 7, 2007, during his fourth deployment, Bobby embarked on a convoy patrol north of Baghdad.

“I was in the lead vehicle,” Henline recalls. “The only thing I remember is having coffee that morning.”

Henline’s Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. Five men were inside the vehicle. Bobby was the only one who survived. He was profoundly burned – the flesh on his head was charred down to the skull.

Within 72 hours, the then-staff sergeant was inside the specialized burn unit at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he began the long, grueling treatment that included amputating part of an arm. Recovery wasn’t easy – physically or emotionally.

“I had a lot of survivor’s guilt,” Henline recalls. “I felt useless.”

During his rehabilitation, he developed a coping technique to let his family and caregivers know he was doing better.

“I joked with them,” Henline says. “I used my sense of humor. They said I was crazy-funny.”

So much so, that a physical therapist made him pinkie swear to try standup comedy, Henline laughs.

It worked out so well that Henline now is a regular on the comedy circuit.

But not all veterans can joke their way to a livelihood, Henline says. “They need to be able to support themselves and their families.

“I started thinking about what I could do to help and pay back.”

Naturally, his love of hamburgers came to mind.

A New Start

One of Henline ‘s favorite hamburger restaurants is Biggie’s Great Burgers and Shakes in San Clemente, California. The restaurant is owned by a Korean War veteran who himself wants to pay forward his thanks to other service members.

“A Marine who used to come to my restaurant kept asking me to open more,” Biggie’s founder Richard Brown tells PEOPLE. “He was killed on deployment. It bothered me a lot. After that, I wanted to do something for other veterans.”

Henline and Brown were a natural partnership. Henline loves hamburgers, and both men want to help their fellow vets.

“Bobby blows me away,” Brown says. “He’s an amazing guy.”

Brown will mentor Henline and train him how to run his own Biggie’s. “He’ll have it in San Antonio, where my Marine friend wanted me to open a place,” Brown says.

Henline plans to hire only veterans to manage and work at the restaurant.

All he needs is funding.

He’s off to a good start. One month after launching a GoFundMe campaign, Henline raised more than $28,000. He needs anywhere from $130,000-300,000, depending on whether he finds a site with equipment in place.

“Anything I raise that exceeds what I need, I will pass along to the next vet who wants to do this,” Henline says. “It’s the least I can do, to empower a veteran to move on to the next phase of life.”

Adds Henline: “God kept me alive for a reason. I want to help, and offer other veterans a way to support themselves and their families.

“I just keep trying to give things back and pay things forward.”