Many veterans remember Robin Williams' morale-boosting performances for the troops

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

[Clip from Good Morning, Vietnam]

Marco Werman: We all have a favorite Robin Williams performance. Stand-up comedy madness or compelling screen roles, today they all seem like classics. For many service members, their favorite performances are the ones Robin Williams did just for them when he was on tour with the USO. Jim Gormley was with the Minnesota National Guard deployed to Iraq in 2004.

Jim Gormley: The first thing he said when he came up on stage was ‘Good evening LSA Anaconda!’ in his Adrian Cronauer voice from Good Morning, Vietnam and the crowd erupted. It was definitely one of the biggest highlights from the entire deployment

Werman: Robin Williams did six USO tours, visiting more than a dozen countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Rachel Tischler is the vice president of USO Entertainment and traveled with Williams on many of those tours. Rachel, let's just start by talking about one of Robin Williams' performances in 2007, in Iraq. Just as he's starting his set, "Reveille" began, where they lower the flag. Let's listen to the tape. Alright, it sounds pretty funny. Tell us what was happening right then, Rachel.

Rachel Tischler: That was pretty much right at the start of the performance and what you can't see unless you're looking at the tape is actually when "Reveille" is played, the troops have to turn and face the flag and the flag was actually opposite the stage, so there were about 5,000 troops in the audience and they actually all turned around with their backs to Robin and stood at attention during "Reveille." Then they turned back and of course expected him to continue on with the show and, as you probably could hear on the tape, what was wonderful about Robin is he wasn't offended and he took it all in stride and he turned it into a joke and a moment that all of them would remember for the rest of their lives.

Werman: A comedian worse nightmare: a whole crowd of organized hecklers. What was your first interaction with Robin Williams like?

Tischler: I think probably, for me, overwhelming, since I grew up on "Mork and Mindy." I get to meet a lot of famous people in this job but this is one person who I was probably hemming and hawing and stammering over my words and he just made me feel so welcome. That's what he was like with the troops too, so you ended up never feeling uncomfortable with him. Even though he was this super-famous person, it was just like being with another friend.

Werman: Why did he want to perform for Military servicemen and women? Why did he want to do the USO tours? Did he tell you?

Tischler: He did. A lot of what meant so much to Robin about traveling with the USO and being a part of our 70-year history was that, in a way, a joke is kind of like a bullet that can pierce someone's body armor. Another comedian said that once. For him to go and tell jokes was a way to alleviate whatever experience a servicemember might be going through and break them out of that reality and make them laugh and forget about what they're facing and they can just laugh and be themselves and have a moment that they could hold on to to get them through the rest of their deployment.

Werman: Rachel, what is your favorite moment or memory of being with Robin Williams?

Tischler: It's funny because I've been asked that question a lot today and there's just so many and of course more keep coming to mind as the day goes on. But I have to say one of my most famous moments actually was not when Robin was performing. It was just a quiet moment backstage that I happened to observe, where a young Sergeant came up to Robin to thank him for coming out and performing and he said that he wanted to keep him safe and give him something meaningful for taking the time to come and see him and he took off his Saint Christopher medal, which is a medal of protection, and gave it to Robin. Robin of course was completely flabbergasted and didn't want to take and certainly didn't want to take this young kid's talisman. But he insisted, so Robin reached down and took off the cross that he was wearing around his neck and gave it to him and it was just a really beautiful exchange and definitely what he was all about when he toured with the USO. About the big shows but also about the little moments and making them count.

Werman: You'll miss him, we'll all miss him. Rachel Tischler, vice president of USO Entertainment. Thanks very much for your time.

Tischler: Thank you.

Werman: We've been chatting with The World's own online network of veterans today about Robin Williams, about Iraq. If you're a vet and want to be part of our community, just text the word "Return" to 69866. We'd love to hear from you.

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