Robin Williams Created Lasting Moments on 2007 USO Tour

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a 2007 USO Chairman's Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Robin Williams’ personality is too big to fit into one story.

Here are two moments from the 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour we couldn’t fit into yesterday’s tribute to Williams’ service to the military.

‘You Gave Me Yours, I’ll Give You Mine’

The December 2007 tour – which also included Kid Rock, comedian Lewis Black, cyclist Lance Armstrong, Miss USA 2007 Rachel Smith, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan and was led by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen – was a bit of a rough ride. There were travel delays and crazy weather – everything you’d expect when hopping in and out of remote locations in war zones.

At one point on the tour, Williams lost his voice.

“We got on a plane and flew to Afghanistan,” said John Hanson, a USO senior vice president who was on the 2007 tour. “Long flight – got there after the show was supposed to start and the audience had been standing outside in this wet, heavy snow. [Williams] could hardly speak. But he did the show. …

“The next morning … we got on a C-130 with body armor and it was stacked in front of us. … His manager said, ‘Sit next to Robin and whenever he starts talking, tell him to shut up cause he needs his voice this afternoon.’ …

“For some reason, we had to give up our body armor. These troops were coming on and offloading it. It was either a soldier or an airman – I don’t remember – but he said ‘Mr. Williams, I didn’t get to see your show last night, but thank you for coming. It means a lot to us.’ And Robin nodded. And the guy came back on later and said ‘You know, I’ve had this for a while and it’s protected me,’ and he pulled off a St. Christopher medal. And Robin [said] ‘I can’t take that.’

“[And the service member said] ‘It’s done well for me, please take it,’ and he took a couple of the [body armor] vests and walked off. So Robin sat there and he looked at it, and he looked at his manager and me and was puzzled [and] moved.

“The guy came back on to get the last batch of [body armor], and Williams said ‘Wait, you gave me yours,’ and unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out this huge silver cross and said ‘I’ll give you mine.’

“And the [service member] said ‘I can’t take this.’ And [Williams] said ‘if you don’t take that, I won’t take this.’ And so the guy walked off with it.”

Mork at War

Part of the 2007 Chairman’s tour involved officially opening the USO center at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, with some peculiar furniture.

“When we walked in, in the computer room, there was a gaming chair,” Hanson said. “It was a big, white plastic oval. Looked like a gigantic egg.

“And [Williams] ran across, jumped in it and spun around. And it was a weird cultural reference for a lot of the young guys because they didn’t really quite get it.

“And [Williams] said ‘I better stop this [or somebody’s going to get the idea for a TV series.’”

(For everyone under the age of 40, Williams’ breakout role on “Mork and Mindy” – a sitcom that ran from 1978 to 1982 where he played an alien named Mork who came to Earth in an egg-shaped spaceship.)

Why I Volunteer: Suzy Hicks – USO Fort Drum, N.Y.

The USO is highlighting its volunteers from around the world to mark National Volunteer Week, which runs April 21-27. We asked a few of them to tell us why they give their time to the USO. Here is a reply from Suzy Hicks, a former service member, combat veteran and the current USO Volunteer of the Quarter for the Continental United States Region:

Volunteering with the USO Fort Drum is a fun and enjoyable way to give back to our service members who give so much of themselves every day.

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USO Fort Drum volunteer Suzy Hicks, center, is a former soldier who did four combat deployments. USO photo

As a prior service member, I know firsthand the value that the USO has to the troops. From a comfortable place to grab a snack or a cup of coffee on base, at an airport, or even in deployed locations, the USO volunteers can be counted on for a smile and a friendly hello. Our mission is to lift the spirit of America’s troops and their families, and that is exactly what we do at the USO Fort Drum.

The family of volunteers at USO Fort Drum is made up of civilians, family members, veterans and even soldiers who work together to keep the center running smoothly six days a week while operating numerous other events we have going at any given time. I enjoy working with my fellow volunteers towards our goal of putting a smile on our soldiers’ faces. We have so many volunteers who selflessly give hours of their time each week to be there for our troops and their families.

Perhaps the most rewarding mission that I have had the opportunity to be a part of is Here When They Land. As a USO volunteer, I am able to be one of the first people to welcome our brave heroes back from deployment. After a long journey back to the states, these soldiers are always happy to see us with our fresh hot coffee and snacks. It is an honor to personally welcome home and thank our troops for a job well done. I can’t think of a better organization to be a part of!

–Suzy Hicks, USO Fort Drum volunteer

The USO’s Iraq Legacy: A Decade of Evolving Support for America’s Troops

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq.

While American forces have been out of that country for more than a year, the legacy of the war is still sorting itself out.

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USO photo

With the absence of a draft, the conflict pushed America’s all-volunteer force to bear its greatest burden to date, with multiple deployments becoming a large concern on the home front. While the death toll was comparatively low when pitted against previous American conflicts, the extent of the injuries – both mental and physical – were unlike anything the country had openly dealt with before.

But while warfare evolved, one thing didn’t change. Through the last decade, the USO was by the side of our troops on the battlefield and their families at home.

We were there providing millions of phone calls home.

We were there delivering the comforts of home to desert battlefields.

We were there with a video connection to the delivery room when babies were being born.

We were there when the dread of losing a loved one came into focus in the form of a temporary casket being transferred on the tarmac at Dover Air Base, Del.

And we were there when America’s heroes returned, hosting happy homecomings at airports for the majority of troops who made it back unscathed and providing programs for others to deal with the physical and invisible wounds of war. To better confront these issues facing wounded, ill and injured troops, the USO conceived and constructed two Warrior and Family Centers to help them and their families both recover and get on the right track to rewarding lives and new careers.

Thanks to the generous support of the American people, the USO was always by the side of our troops and families during the Iraq War. And we’ll continue to be there, wherever they go.

–Story by USO Story Development

Fighters in the Ring, Heroes on the Ground

In March 2011, a group of boxers set out to Kuwait and Iraq on their first USO tour.  Among them were Olympian and boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya and up-and-coming Golden Boy boxers Adrien Broner, Danny Jacobs and Seth Mitchell.  This band of boxers toured 8 bases and visited with thousands of troops as part of their first USO tour experience at installations like Camp Arifjan, Command Operating Base Basra, Camp Victory, Camp Liberty, Joint Security Station (JSS) Loyalty and JSS Justice.

Oscar De La Hoya speaks to U.S. troops serving in Kuwait while on his first USO tour to the Middle East March 10, 2011. De La Hoya was joined by up-and-coming boxers Adrien Broner, Seth Mitchell, and Danny Jacobs (background left to right). (USO Photo/Steve Manuel)

Along for the journey were HBO producer Scott Boggins and cinematographer Thom Stukas, who had worked together previously on the Emmy Award-winning “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classics,” and me.  Yes, that’s right me! And like everyone else, this was my first USO tour.  My role was to serve as liaison between the HBO film crew and the military officials on the ground, and while that may not sound too exciting, it actually turned out to be the experience of a lifetime.

As part of our week in theater, we met service men and women from all over the United States.  The fighters signed autographs and hosted boxing clinics, which gave our troops the chance to pound fists with some of boxing’s greatest athletes.  And as we traveled from base to base we heard over and over how grateful troops were for the touch of home the visit brought.

But at the end of the week-long adventure it was the tour participants who walked away feeling humbled and grateful for the opportunity to spend time with troops serving on the frontlines.  When boxing legend De La Hoya returned to the states, he talked about his experience on a USO tour,

“Hearing their stories and seeing what they go through on a daily basis has changed my life.  The opportunity to see how our troops live and understand their ability to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice showed me what it means to be truly brave.”

I watched as the boxers signed autographs for countless troops, shared meals with them and just listened as they told their stories of life in the military and the families that awaited their return.  It was clear that what our troops missed most was a connection to home and by sharing their stories with us, knowing that in a few more days we’d be headed stateside, it was like they were sending their stories back with us.  It was enough to humble even the biggest of giants.

Olympic gold medalist and former 10-time world champion, Oscar De La Hoya (right), spars with Army CWO-2 Lisa Buckley of the 36th Infantry Division serving in Basra, Iraq, Friday, March 11, 2011. The boxing legend is in the region as part of his first USO tour to the Middle East. De La Hoya is joined by up-and-coming boxers Adrien Broner, Danny Jacobs, and Seth Mitchell. (USO Photo by Steve Manuel)

But it wasn’t just De La Hoya who was left with a profound sense of awe for the service men and women who put their lives on the line on a daily basis.  Heavyweight Seth Mitchell said:

“When I spoke to some of the soldiers, they told me that they work twelve to sixteen hours a day, six or seven days a week.  Hearing about their dedication and the sacrifices they make actually boosted my morale.  It’s a great honor to know that these men and women are serving to protect us.”

These boxers aren’t just showing their appreciation with words.  In fact, Broner – who is the World Boxing Organization’s current superfeather weight champion – has taken it one step further.   He recently trained, as part of the 2012 USA Boxing National Championships, alongside troops at Fort Carson, Colorado Springs, Colo., stepping in the ring with some of the fiercest competitors around.

Broner, who will be featured on this Saturday’s broadcast of HBO’s “Boxing After Dark,” will defend his title against fellow boxer Eloy Perez.  HBO will feature footage from last year’s USO tour to the Middle East as part of the broadcast. Tune in to HBO this Saturday, February 25th at 10 PM (EST) to learn more about Broner’s USO tour experience or watch the video on HBO.com. It’s a match I won’t want to miss! – Sharee Posey, USO Communications Specialist

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Stockings in Southwest Asia

By John Hanson, Senior Vice President, USO

Every year, the USO’s direct mail campaign includes an appeal that carries the message, “There are no stockings in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Well, of course, there probably ARE stockings there. I can report to you that there are inflatable Santa-in-a-Sleigh yard decorations there. Today’s troops do what American troops at war have always done. They do their best to make their situations as home like as possible.

But, they aren’t home.

These brave men and women are anywhere BUT home, working over every holiday to keep us safe and to secure a nation half way around the world. And, Americans send them things to let them know we honor that sacrifice. They’ll get cakes and candy and the kinds of things we put in stockings, even if the troops don’t have a stocking handy.

Several years ago, I was on a USO holiday tour hosted by the Sergeant Major of the Army. The tour lasted ten days or so, and we were going to arrive home on Christmas Eve. The tour was exhausting. We stopped at Balad, Iraq, and when we walked backstage during the sound check, we noticed that there were small stockings on the wall. Nurses at the military hospital there bought the stockings, wrote the performers’ names in glue and glitter and put a single candy cane in each one. I will never forget the looks on the faces of each person, nor will I forget the glee and wonder each expressed at the thought of someone taking the time to say, “Merry Christmas” in that way. Stockings have power.

No Dodging a Good Time with USO Basrah

Who's up for a game of dodgeball? (Photo by USO Basrah)

Basrah, Iraq –  Tonight was filled with fast feet, flying balls, and high stakes competition as USO Basrah teamed up with the 2515th Naval Air Ambulance Detachment to bring an exciting spin to typical base intramural sports.

Depending on your elementary school experience, ‘dodge ball’ either brings up fond memories or brings you back to getting pegged in the head in 6th grade.  Either way, putting those same foam balls in the hands of soldiers puts a new ‘spin’ on things, and this week’s event proved dodge ball is far from child’s play.

Over the course of the night, 16 teams raced their way to the middle line, snatched what they could, and gave their best throw, and when the dust settled….everyone enjoyed some barbeque. With such a large turn out, this tournament is the start of something good, a first installment of a base-wide favorite.

Below are some highlights of the night. For more pictures be sure to search for us on Facebook at “USO Basrah.”

One team player surveys his options before letting 'em fly... (Photo by USO Basrah)

"If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball." (Photo by USO Basrah)

It's only a game...or is it? (Photo by USO Basrah)