Arts, Culture & Media

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

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Robin Williams entertains troops during a USO performance.

Most of us have a favorite Robin Williams performance.

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

Whether stand-up comedy madness, or compelling screen roles, today they all seem like classic bits.

For many military service members, their favorite performances are the ones Williams did just for them when he was on tour with the USO. Jim Gormley saw Williams perform while he was deployed in Iraq in 2004 with the Minnesota National Guard and stationed at what was then known as the Logistics Support Area Anaconda (LSA Anaconda).

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

The late Williams did six USO tours, visiting more than a dozen countries including Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In a way, a joke is kind of like a bullet that can pierce somebody’s body armor — another comedian said that once,” said Rachel Tischler, vice president of USO Entertainment, “And for him to go and tell jokes was a way to alleviate whatever experience a service member might be going through and break them out of that reality and make them laugh and forget about what they were facing.”

Tischler travelled with Williams on many of those tours. One performance she’ll never forget took place in Iraq in 2007. Just as Robin Williams took the stage, Call to Colors began to play and the entire audience turned away from the stage to face the flag.

“There were about 5,000 troops in the audience and they actually turned around with their backs to Robin and stood at attention during Call to Colors and then turned back around and of course expected him to continue on with the show,” said Tishchler. “And what was wonderful about Robin is that he wasn’t offended and took it all in stride and turned it into a joke and a moment that all of them would remember for the rest of their lives.”

However, Tischler’s favorite moment with Williams was not on stage, but rather it was a quiet moment backstage that she happened to observe. A young sergeant approached Williams to thank him for his performance.

The sergeant told Williams that he wanted to give him something meaningful and took the Saint Christopher medal from around his neck and handed it to the comedian.

“Robin, of course, was completely flabbergasted 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,” said Tischler.

It’s a moment that she will never forget.

“It was definitely what he was all about when touring with the USO; not just the big shows but the little moments and making them count,” she said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated what song interrupted Williams during his USO performance in 2007.

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