Robin Williams left a legacy for entertaining the troops. Photo courtesy of the USO.
Wearing a black T-shirt tucked into desert-camouflage pants, Robin Williams strolls into a supply depot at Bagram Airfield to roaring applause. The world-famous actor and comedic genius known for his roles in The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, and Mrs. Doubtfire immediately put his improvisational skills to work delivering jokes for American troops serving in Afghanistan.
“Thank you, I just got off a C-130 and I can’t hear shit,” Williams jokes, while a soldier moves to adjust his microphone. “Oh, a nipple twist now,” he comments with his hands in the air and soldiers snickering in the background.
The performance was recorded by the Armed Forces Network in October 2002 and was Williams’ first of six USO tours. For the troops, his humor was military-themed, targeting topics including Usama bin Laden, President George W. Bush, and military haircuts. He even managed to mingle in a lighthearted golf joke.
“We’re here at the third hole of the Afghan Open,” he whispered into his microphone in his best golf-announcer voice. “We can’t play the 10th hole because it’s still mined.”
When the soldiers recovered from belly laughing and Williams ended his performance, he stuck around to sign autographs, pose for pictures, and listen to their stories. This wasn’t a routine Williams did for paparazzi or the media — he genuinely cared about the troops.
Between 2002 and 2013, Williams had the opportunity to visit 12 different countries while on the USO tours. He stopped three times each in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps his most revered performance came in 2007 at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. It’s remembered for his reaction to “Retreat” interrupting his stand-up act: A trumpet sounds, and the entire military audience turns away from him to face the flag in silence, a tradition repeated at the end of each workday.
“I’m not gonna forget that,” he exclaimed in respect. “I never had an entire audience go ‘Forget you!” […] I was also wondering what’s coming from that way? When an entire group of military people turn that fucking way.”
When asked about his experiences on the USO tour in 2007, Williams, who died by suicide in 2014, responded honestly. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than traveling with the USO and giving back to our troops in whatever way I can,” he said. “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.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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