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.)

USO and Team Red, White, and Blue Help Troops and Veterans Scale New Heights at Rock-Climbing Camp

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ESTES PARK, Colo.—For many people — especially those scared of heights — scaling a 50-foot mountain wall is the last thing they’d want to do on a warm August afternoon.

But for a group of adventurous transitioning troops and veterans who attended a special three-day rock climbing camp in Colorado, climbing along the steep peaks of the Rocky Mountains seemed like the perfect way to spend a long summer weekend.

The camp, hosted by the USO and Team Red, White, and Blue, taught leadership skills and built confidence among attendees while scaling new heights. The two organizations began partnering last year to deliver an environment for troops, civilians and veterans to come together, share their stories and to build a foundation for healthy, active living.

The camp was led by climber and Wheaties athlete Tommy Caldwell and his father, Mike Caldwell, a climbing guide with over 30 years of experience. For the second year in a row, the pair helped participants scale 50-foot-plus tall mountain walls in Jurassic Park and Lumpy Ridge.

“I didn’t have people to keep in touch with when I got out,” said camp participant and veteran Antonio Ruiz. “I wish this situation was available for me back then. It would have made a big difference in my life.”

(Photo by Tyrone Marshall/Courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Climbers receive instruction during the weekend camp. Photo by Tyrone Marshall/Courtesy of the
Department of Defense

During the three-day session, Tommy Caldwell shared his personal story of overcoming a traumatic experience with the camp participants in hopes of inspiring them to conquer life’s challenges.

In 2000, while on a climbing expedition in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, his group was held hostage at gunpoint for six days before Caldwell seized an opportunity to overpower the kidnappers, allowing for their escape. Once home, he struggled to cope with the memories of his captivity. One day, while doing home repairs, Caldwell accidentally sawed off his finger. Unable to reattach it, doctors prepped him for the possibility that he’d never climb professionally again.

“At one point a doctor told me I should really think about what I wanted to do,” Caldwell said during his speech to attendees. “I got mad because how could he not believe in me? And that inspired me even more. I left the hospital and immediately went to the gym to train.”

(Photo by Tyrone Marshall/Courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Climbers gather during the weekend camp. Photo by Tyrone Marshall/Courtesy of the
Department of Defense

In addition to learning the ins-and-outs of outdoor climbing, campers participated in a leadership seminar lead by Team Red, White, and Blue Director of Operations J.J. Pinter.

“Think about all that leadership experience,” Pinter said, according to a Department of Defense story on the seminar. “There’s no reason that you can’t go back in your communities and be the leaders that our country is drastically needing.”

USO Communications Manager Sharee Posey contributed to this post from Estes Park, Colorado, and USO Multimedia Journalist Sandi Moynihan contributed to this post from Arlington, Virginia.

USO Arizona Volunteer Sacrifices Sleep so Stranded Troops and Families Have a Place to Stay

When Michelle Selby showed up to volunteer at the USO Arizona center at the Phoenix International Airport last week, she had no idea it was going to be an overnight shift.

But after a large sand storm (called a haboob) blanketed Phoenix — and stranded many traveling service members and their families overnight in the airport — Selby decided to make sure they had a comfortable place to spend the night.

“It makes you feel good when you can do something like that,” Selby said.

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USO Arizona is normally open to service members and their families daily until 8 p.m., unless special extended hours are requested ahead of time. But Selby chose to stay up all night so the USO Arizona center could stay open for the stranded military travelers.

“I just kept thinking, I wouldn’t be able to sleep when I got home,” Selby said. “As tired as I was getting, I couldn’t get myself to leave.”

Initially Selby thought she’d be able keep the center open until 10 p.m. But before she knew it, it was midnight, so she decided to keep the center open for as long as she could stay awake.

“I just didn’t have the heart to go wake them all up and say ‘You guys have to go sleep on the floor out in the airport, I’m going home to my comfy bed,'” Selby said.

Selby, whose son serves in the Air Force, hopes her actions inspire others to volunteer for the USO.

“My whole incentive when I’m at the USO is to try to treat people like I would want my son to be treated and taken care of,” Selby said.

New USO Center at Portland International Airport Welcomes 1,000th Visitor

USO Northwest’s Center at Portland International Airport welcomed its 1,000th guest today, less than a month after opening its doors.

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The lucky 1,000th guest was Marine Lance Cpl. Garrett Rhodes, who is currently stationed in Camp Hansen, Japan. Rhodes, who hails from Cottage Grove, Oregon, said he was excited to find out his home airport had a new USO center for him to enjoy.

“I was pretty excited because I have a long layover, and I’d been to PDX before when there was not a USO,” Rhodes said. “I was trying to figure out how I was going to spend the wait time, and I was very relieved to find out there was a USO now.”

The center, which opened July 1, serves active duty troops and their families traveling to and from the Portland International Airport. While visiting the center, troops can enjoy snacks and refreshments and relax between flights by watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the Web at computer stations. Find out more about the center here.

Quiz: Can You Answer These Five Questions About the USO?

Think you know your USO and military history? Take this week’s USO quiz. (Answers at the bottom.)

1. The USO had an official mascot at one point during World War II. What was it?
A. a service dog
B. a mongoose
C. a fruit fly
D. a bugler

Library of Congress photo

Bob Hope. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

2. Bob Hope first performed for a military audience at what location?
A. Nome, Alaska
B. March Field, California
C. Love Field, California
D. Hickam Field, Hawaii

3. USO shows today are free to all service members. But that wasn’t always the case. How much did it cost in 1942 for Army and Navy troops to get into a USO Camp Show?
A. 1 to 5 cents
B. 10 cents
C. 15 to 20 cents
D. 25 cents

4. Which former Apollo Astronaut was once a member of the USO Board of Governors?
A. Neil Armstrong
B. John Glenn
C. Michael Collins
D. Frank Boreman

5. In 1982, then-USO President William G. Whyte personally accepted a $10,000 contribution to the USO from which of these celebrities?
A. Woody Allen
B. Reggie Jackson
C. E.T.
D. Shamu the Killer Whale

Highlight the line below to see the answers:
1. B; 2. B; 3. C; 4. C; 5. D