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‘He Brought Them Light’: How Robin Williams Turned his USO Tours into Personal Experiences for Troops

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

By Eric Brandner   

Today, the audience gets to tell the story.

The photos of service members posing with Robin Williams flowing through social media feeds the past 24 hours say more than any condolence statement could. 

There is Williams with a pair of female service members in Djibouti in 2004. Posing with a soldier after a long flight at Camp Speicher, Iraq, in 2007. Signing autographs during a holiday tour of Afghanistan in late 2010.

Those were hard times for people in uniform. But for a moment, Williams managed to make almost everyone he met in those conflict zones smile.

“There were these guys behind a fence, across a berm [and] a field, and they waved at him,” said USO Vice President of Entertainment Rachel Tischler, recalling her time with Williams during the 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour. “And he jumped across the berm and went running over to them. Obviously, our security team completely freaked out. Again – height of the war here.  But he didn’t care. He just wanted to go over and shake their hands and thank them. And that is what he was like.”

A friend and entertainer to American service members around the globe, Williams was found dead in his Tiburon, California, home Monday afternoon in what the Marin County Sheriff’s Office characterized as a suspected suicide. He was 63.

Williams went on six USO tours from 2002 to 2013, including five overseas. He visited troops in 12 foreign countries, making three stops to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There’s nothing I enjoy more than traveling with the USO and giving back to our troops in whatever way I can,” Williams said during his 2007 USO tour led by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. “They work hard, sacrifice a lot and deserve to be treated like the heroes they are. The very least I can do is bring a smile to their faces.”

The connections didn’t end when he left the stage. One of Williams’ legacies will be the photos with men and women in various shades of camo squinting and smiling at camera phones in the middle of the desert. He openly discussed his struggles with them, too.

“He talked to [troops] who had gone through [Alcoholics Anonymous] backstage,” said USO Senior Vice President John Hanson, who also went on the 2007 tour. “That was the most remarkable thing. It happened in Kuwait, it happened in Iraq, it happened in Afghanistan. People would seek him out and he would take the time to talk to them.”

According to Tischler, Williams was always cognizant of playing to the military audience’s shared experiences.

“What was great about him on tour was that he always took the time to sit down and talk to people about what they were going through, what life on the base was like, about personal experiences,” Tischler said. “And then he’d get on stage and he’d be telling a joke about Mexican Night in the [dining facility].

“He already put on a great show, but now it was just for the people who were there and no one else would have gotten the jokes. … It made the moment even more amazing for them because he’s talking about what they went through.

“We’d land and we had a show in five minutes and in the course of … walking to a stage, he somehow found someone and got that information and put it in a routine. It was absolutely mind-blowing.”

His fellow entertainers were impressed, too.

“His generosity of spirit was as boundless as his comedy,” comedian Lewis Black wrote on Twitter on Monday night. Black also performed on the 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour. “I will miss him terribly.”

The USO’s Entertainment team estimates Williams performed for or visited with more than 89,000 service members during his 12-plus years of volunteering.

“When our service members had the opportunity to see him in person, they knew they were seeing an icon of comedy, but it was more than that,” said John Pray, the USO’s executive vice president and chief of staff. “It was someone who actually understood their own trials and tribulations and struggles as they dealt with loneliness, fear, uncertainty and a variety of negative emotions.

“He brought them light and took them away for a period of time from those challenges and gave them a chance to recharge.”

 ** Read about more moments from Robin Williams' 2007 USO tour including a touching exchange with a service member on the USO blog.  **

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