WASHINGTON — The title of the movie comes in an unmistakable howl: “Good morning, Vietnam!”
Robin Williams delivered one of his most iconic roles as a U.S. servicemember – the voluble, nonconformist Air Force broadcaster Adrian Cronauer.
His screen portrayal and rapid-fire jokes ribbed rigid commanders and life in the military, but it was never mean-spirited. It was timeless grunt humor, making light of the dreariness and monotony of war. His lines still provide sound bites for overseas American Forces Network radio shows.
“What’s the difference between the Army and the Cub Scouts? The Cub Scouts don’t have heavy artillery,” Williams quipped in one on-air scene.
The connection that servicemembers felt with Williams could have started and ended with the fake uniforms, movie sets and jokes of “Good Morning, Vietnam” in 1988. But by the time he died this week, Williams had worked for over a decade building a real-life relationship with those who fought – and were wounded – in the country’s newest wars.
It was a bond strong enough to be recognized not only by the ranks, who posted photos of themselves with Williams on social media Tuesday, but also by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who called him a “true friend and supporter” of U.S. troops.
“From entertaining thousands of service men and women in war zones, to his philanthropy that helped veterans struggling with hidden wounds of war, he was a loyal and compassionate advocate for all who serve this nation in uniform,” Hagel said in a released statement. “He will be dearly missed by the men and women of DOD, so many of whom were personally touched by his humor and generosity.”
Williams, 63, who apparently committed suicide in his home Monday after battling drug abuse and depression, traveled around the world with USO to perform at military bases after the attacks on 9/11. He was among the first entertainers to travel to Afghanistan and eventually visited bases in 13 countries, including Bahrain, Djibouti, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Spain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, according to USO spokeswoman Oname Thompson.
In his home state of California, Williams participated in charity events to support wounded troops such as a Marin County bicycle ride in 2010, and he supported a charity for wounded athletes that included many servicemembers.
“I’m so honored to meet them and know what they’ve gone through and say, ‘Hey dude,’ this is just something that really humbles me,” Williams told ABC News’ Bob Woodruff during a “Stand Up for Heroes” event in 2012.
During his many USO trips, he would often stay after his shows to make personal connections with servicemembers, retired Gen. Carter Ham told ABC News.
“He would go to the guard towers, he’d go to the dining facilities, he’d go to the security police who couldn’t come to the shows because they were on duty. And he would spend time with them individually. That was very moving,” Ham said.
John Hanson, senior vice president of the USO, went on tour with Williams in 2007 and said the comedian never complained about uncomfortable sleeping arrangements or running to the next helicopter ride.
At one show, Williams completed his stand-up act and found a harmonica so he could stay and perform with musician Kid Rock for troops who had waited three hours in the snow, Hanson said.
“He was the kind of the guy who made you think we was your friend, even if you were never going to see him again,” he said.
But it was his honesty that connected with servicemembers on the USO circuit, Hanson said. Williams joked to them about his struggle with substance abuse, a common problem that many in the military could relate to and one that may have contributed to his suicide by asphyxiation.
After missing a USO tour for a stint in rehab, he told troops he had violated his own standards faster than he could lower them.
“He was out there naked on the stage and giving of himself,” Hanson said.
On Tuesday, fans were placing flowers, candles and memorabilia on Williams’ Walk of Fame star in Hollywood, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Christopher Mulrooney, an Iraq war veteran, was holding a photo of himself with the comic and told the newspaper they met during a USO tour in 2003.
“That five minutes I got to know him, I felt like I was a part of his family,” Mulrooney told the Times. “It was just a few days from the holidays, everyone was kind of bummed and depressed … the great news that we had was that we got Saddam [Hussein] and next thing you know we have Robin Williams on our base.”