Robin Williams on a USO tour before Christmas in 2003.
USO file photo, 2003, by Mike Theiler via Associated Press
GOOD MORNING, IRAQ
- Phil Bronstein
Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Longtime San Francisco resident, actor and comedian Robin Williams visited Iraq and Afghanistan in December to entertain U.S. troops. It was his second trip to Iraq, his third to Afghanistan. Williams, who won the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe for lifetime achievement in film last month, sat down with Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein right before the Iraqi election. Williams talked about his trip, what he saw and what heexperienced. His travels were part of a tour organized by the USO (United Service Organizations)..
Robin Williams: Some of the shows in Iraq were indoors. A lot were outdoors. It's weird when you're doing the shows, like in Iraq we do these shows and everyone's in full camo (camouflage) and we're not -- so it's kinda like, "Woooow."
One time we did a show two years ago, it was in Iraq and the entire audience was all in helmets and camo except for a group of Australians sitting in this truck smoking. I thought it was a fuel truck, but they said later on it's a water truck. (Australian accent): "No, go ahead Robin," (makes sound of match and an explosion noise) ...
It's weird to see all these different camouflages because in the coalition troops, the coalition of the willing, there's all types of camo. The Australians come with somewhat desert camo, we have desert camo and some guys come straight deployment and they have full green, which I'm going: "Doesn't work here. Nice desert." And then the Air Force has this new blue camouflage. Unless you're up against the sky, what is this s -- ? Blue, like big time. Even gay people are going, "Like: no. Quail egg, what is it? It's teal, it's teal and white, it's so fabulous!"
The shows, we would perform to 2,000 to 3,000 in some places ... by the end, it got to be a good rhythm. It was first Leeann Tweeden, who had just got to be on the cover of what was that magazine? FX magazine or one of those ... And she did one of those spreads that was, it was just close enough to go (in dramatic loud voice) "WHEW! Helloooo boys!" And the guys are going "YEAHHH!"
Chronicle: So, the structure was like an old Bob Hope show?
RW: Oh, yeah, like a traditional Bob Hope show, kind of, except blue. You know, Bob Hope with a strap-on. The general (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers) opened the show. He was like the hardcore. He sets the tone just to say, hey, thank you. He's very personal because he gets out and meets everyone. In the first year, we went with him. The first year we went alone. It was just USO shows, just me. We did the shows and most times we'd stay in the bases overnight. Like in Afghanistan, we'd stayed. Bagram, Kandahar, Jacobabad (Pakistan) and then a base in Afghanistan. You'd go visit all the bases. When you go with the general, it's in and out. The first time it was just me. Last year it was with the general again, which was fun. You travel on his nickel and you get in and get out. No waiting.
Chronicle: Was this the longest time you spent over there?
RW: No, I think the first time was. Same amount of time as last year but more shows. It was like 13 shows. It was all what we used to call "one-night 'Stans." All these former Russian republics. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan ending up in Pakistan.
Chronicle: You were at some secret bases -- They couldn't say where you were?
RW: They couldn't. You'd go, "Where were we?" (in Arab accent) "It's beautiful, I don't know." My favorite thing is when you go, especially in Afghanistan, and you see all the Special Forces -- and the covert-op guys. You'd see these heavily bearded guys going "Who are the surfers?" Oh, and they're heavily armed, like heavily armed Amish. Hardcore stuff. Usually some beards. A lot of them have typical Afghan wear. Couple of times you'd see a guy in full Afghan clothes, except for a New York Yankees hat -- which confuses the Afghans. Yankees caps are huge (in Arab accent): "Can you also get me Steelers, Oakland Raiders? Perfect?" The first year we went there were no restrictions ... the shows were the shows. And it was just me. It was pretty wild and they just set up makeshift stages outside and that was pretty crazy -- the first time, it was a really hot room, like 500 or 800 guys. It was like a sauna. But we had a blast. And afterwards, we'd sign pictures.
Chronicle: So did you get a sense this year the mood was different?
RW: No, I think they're still kind of hanging in. Plus it's a volunteer army still, except for the National Guard. We played this one base which was like a staging base, what was it called? Camp Virginia (Kuwait) -- that's where they come to stage and that was the only place, where you made the joke about Rumsfeld and the iron and we're trying to get you some iron and they went "Yeaaah." And we're like "Are you going to pimp your own irons?" And they're like "F -- , yeah!"
Blake Clark was a Vietnam vet and a comic in Kuwait and he was edgy because for him it was cathartic because he said, "I never want you to go through what I went through. I want you to come back and not have people look at you like ... (moans)." There are a lot of National Guard units going back, and re-equipping and going back -- and it was a week after Rumsfeld and that's the only place you kind of got the sense of, "We need more s -- , come on, you know."
Chronicle: In "Good Morning, Vietnam," you kind of had the movie sets of the same --
RW: Yeah, and in a weird way, that would be your opening line, and just like Blake when he would come out would do his thing from -- he had been in "The Waterboy," and he would do that, and they all knew the character so well. Because he had played a Cajun character in "Waterboy" you couldn't understand -- and his opening line was: "The only movie you know me from, you can't understand a f -- word I said." The order was, Leann Tweeden would go out and would basically work it, and very sweet and but basically the T&A factor. And her family had been in the service for years and she's done a lot of these shows everywhere -- so she goes out and then it was John Elway, who was great, who actually by the end started to get really funny.
Chronicle: And he's like shooting footballs out into the audience? No steroids?
RW: None. (in Southern accent): "I'm just clean and happy." And he was throwing out footballs and then Blake went on and then kicked ass and then I'd go on so it was like more of a show than we ever had before. I would start off with "Good Morning whatever the name of the place was, and then riff, and go off from there.
Chronicle: I mean, the tension for you, you're on these Blackhawks and even with the armor --
RW: As weird as it is, as weird as it seems, it isn't scary -- it's like the only time. The first year we went, they had combat landings and takeoffs, which is kinda surreal -- like a weird ride except you realize the consequence of the ride is if someone shoots at you that maybe you go down. But most of the time they spiral in and you're sitting up front. And the first time they land in Afghanistan, they say, "Mr. Williams, you want to stay up here," you start seeing the whole flight crew strapping in Kevlar and helmets and guys getting up by the doors. And you're going, "Shouldn't we ... ?" And then they spiral in and you land, and the moment you get off the plane, they say, "Please sir, stay on the path." "Why? What's on the other side?" "It's still mined." I went, "Thank you."
(Switches to Bob Hope voice) Yeah, it's crazy isn't it? The back nine is still mined. Yeah, I love it here. I'll keep my feet, thank you. Who's that? Stumpy? (in soft Arab accent) "I'm local mineworker."
But the one takeoff, out of Balad, at night. Totally blacked out. They're in all night-vision goggles and I was sitting in the back this time. ... And they just go whoooom and it's straight up, just like Space Mountain, and all you hear is like WHOA! And people who have done it are like, "Shut up. Is that your hand?" "Maybe." It's all C-130s, which are these old, the standard ones they've been using for years. They don't have the gunner anymore. The weird thing is with the crew on the C-130, everyone's looking for flashes, even with night vision. They're just looking for that. One time we took off out of Afghanistan, I was sitting in the cockpit. You hear: (robotic voice) "Missile launch, missile launch," and they pop flares but it can be a reflection off the ground. Any heat signature off the ground registers as a missile? "Is that OK?" And they say, "Yeah, that's nothing." Oh really? OK, thank you. (In robotic voice: Windshear, 500. Missile launch.) And they run the test on all of those things. (Robotic voice, shrill this time): "Warning: You're f -- . Warning: Back up, move out." But there was never a sense of imminent danger, I mean, even though the week after we left, they hit that cafeteria, which we'd been in the year before.
Chronicle: How much did you travel on the ground?
RW: You travel in between bases all over -- we never went into to the cities. Like in Kandahar, it used to be like a minor equivalent of what La Guardia was. A little TWA-built, shot up, shot to s -- , man, with all sorts of Farsi on the wall, "F -- you." And big blown-up buildings, especially when we went there the first time because it was right after the invasion. ... And that was the one thing about Afghanistan. You'd fly over it and realize, this is bleak, and then you land and you realize it's even bleaker. And they said at one point, that whole valley was the most fertile valley in Afghanistan. It was beautiful. And obviously for poppies -- opium. And it's back, big. The good news for heroin addicts, the opium is back, big! And you saw the article in the paper, where they go, "We don't know if it will affect the election if we stop poppy growth." Livelihood: "Potatoes? Poppies? Your call." We found that nobody's freebasing French fries. "What are you, chasing the potato?"
Chronicle: You would wade into the crowd, I read.
RW: You would do kind of a re-con, and find out what's happening at the base. In Afghanistan I kind of knew certain things about the place, the dust. The first time we landed in Afghanistan, it was at 3 p.m. in the afternoon. And the dust was so big it was like "Lawrence of Arabia," except played in Oklahoma. It was to the point the guys would say you would cough an adobe brick. And I transferred that, so, basically: "You can s -- your own buildings here." The second time we went was at night and we went and did a show in Kandahar and the Special Forces and all these guys were all up on the roof and they have their own compound because they're pretty much off reservation anyway -- they're all up there with glow sticks, it's like Woodstock -- they're like "F -- dude." They're all up there with glow sticks, which they use to mark landing zones.
Chronicle: Except they don't grab their own ordnance.
RW: "What's that? Oww! F -- you, idiot! That's not a flare, dumb f -- , C-4, f -- off!" The first time we landed, there was still a lot of coalition. The Australians were still there, the English, all these guys. The second time we came back there were fewer and fewer, Lithuanians, Latvians. I'd meet guys from Estonia: "What are you here for?"
Chronicle : So when you'd go into the crowds, would you --
RW: Meet people, talk to them -- and get re-con for what the show could be about. Like when we did this one major base in Qatar, the big one ... I said, "You guys really have it hard," because they had a thing that said "day spa." I went, "ah, war is heck, isn't it?" And all these guys said: "Day spa? Ah, f -- off." "They got the day spa, you bastards." And then we did an aircraft carrier, which is pretty crazy. And a guy complained about the food and everybody went, "Shut the f -- up. Have an MRE (meal ready to eat) and shut up."
Chronicle: And when you'd go in to talk to them, what kinds of things did people say to you?
RW: Most of the time, they'd say, thanks for coming, thanks for being here, thanks, it helps -- because it's before Christmas. I think for them it's like, the show is pretty loose. Like last year, I do the full thing like on HBO and I'd look up and see the general and he's there laughing -- kind of, I mean. He has to hold decorum and he's having a great time and I'd see his wife and I'm like "sorry!" and I'd be doing this really blue Viagra kind of string and spraying the audience and they're going nuts and -- I'd look down and I'm like, "please."
Chronicle: So you could do anything you wanted?
RW: Pretty much. This year they said, just back off a little because it's the general's final tour and they don't want him to take flak for bringing the little blue boy. But it was cool. I backed it up a little and it still worked.
There was one show where there were a lot of kids in the audience and that was pretty much like, (in Mr. Rogers accent) "Hi, boys and girls."
Chronicle: Kids? Like, actual kids?
RW: Kids like kids. In Bahrain, there were a lot of families -- they've since moved them out. They thought it was too dangerous -- even in Bahrain - - even this year there were more kids so that was the place I just (makes smooch sound) "hi boys and girls." When you talked to them, you'd meet people, a husband and wife either stationed at the same base, like a nurse and doctor -- or nurse and her husband's a helicopter pilot. And I'd meet them and they'd ask if you'd go to the next base and try and say hi to so-and-so and we'd run into people like that. Or one time we got a box of cookies from this girl and the cookies were left behind because they got mixed up in some luggage, we changed planes but I still met the girl on the other end and said thanks for trying. I think it's the main object of just showing up and having a good time with them.
Did I get a sense that things are tougher? Yeah, you can pick up on that. You get a sense that it's hardcore. We toured a hospital in Kandahar. The wounded there were a couple of helicopter pilots. I don't know if they'd been shot down or crashed but they were stable and conscious. The first time we went there we met these kids and that was pretty rough because there was a boy who had been wounded by a mine and his parents wanted nothing to do with it. He was pretty beaten up, I don't think he was going to make it. And you just saw the look in his eyes, like "What? why? why?" But there was also a little boy who they were going to adopt, who was part of a thing -- remember that wedding party that got shot up because they got celebratory fire -- well, there was this little boy who had survived that and his parents didn't and they were going to adopt him he was just riding around on hot wheels like, "What happened?" "Nothing."
Troops stationed in Iraq are all smiles as Williams entertains them in December 2003.
Associated Press file photo, 2003, by Laurent Rebours
Chronicle: You heard about this kid who got brought to Oakland, we did a big long series on him. He came across a mine. And the guys over there pulled him in and fixed him and Children's Hospital in Oakland said we'll take him and they sent him here with his father.
RW: The mines are hideous. Plus now, the explosive damage, the only show where you saw a lot of wounded was in Ramstein (Germany), which is the main base. If you can make it to Ramstein, you're going to make it. They have a 24- 7 constant hospital, and they say the problem is the body armor protects the core body. but limbs ... I met a lot of guys, even when we did the challenged athletes, which is amputees and different things, there were a lot there this year -- even a couple that were going back, who get a prosthesis and go back to Iraq to their unit. They want to go back and they'll have some function, like a driver, but they don't want to leave their unit.
Chronicle: What always struck me after being in combat and war zones for so long, was that "wounded" and "killed" never fully describe the kind of indignities the human body can go through.
RW: No you can't even think. I mean, there was a guy sitting in front and he'd obviously been burned, and they had him with that burn gel on and he was watching the show and his hands were in the blanket and at first everyone thought he'd lost his arms. He was still kind of shell shocked but he was OK and he was kind of laughing like this -- you saw that he'd been pretty badly burned but they're reconstructing. But it wasn't like the hideous burns but he'd taken a major hit. A lot of those guys were there. But they didn't have the hardcore in the front. But it's still like you said, no one can explain this -- especially the more brutal the weapons are.
Chronicle: Have you heard from people who saw you over there?
RW: Yeah, we get all sorts of amazing letters. Yeah, you get letters from them, you get letters from their families, you get letters from spouses, you get letters saying thanks. I got this weird kind of bittersweet letter from this woman who said thank you for my son -- saying he's having a really tough time but you performed and he had a really great day and he said it helped him so much. Sorry to say that he passed away, he was killed. That was last year.
Even Blake said, when he was in Vietnam sometimes the only things you can kind of get were those shows. The first time we went we got to see more people, and they actually would take you to all the different extremities of the base and you'd met the guys at the perimeter who were like, "What the f -- are you doing here, man?" And you'd see them and they'd come out dressed like mosquito men in the night-vision and go "Hey, Mr. Williams, how are you dude?" And they'd show you the stuff, which is pretty wild. I'd say put on the night- vision goggles. And one guy said one night he was looking out with the night- vision goggles in Afghanistan and saw an Afghan with a goat and he said, "I don't want to see that again." He was like: "That f -- me up for a week, Jack. " (In calm, clinical accent) "What's he doing to the goat?" "Don't ask." A good goat'll do that.
But the shows themselves were pretty wild and great. In terms of a performance, it's some of the best audiences you'll ever get in your life.
Chronicle: Is it like a different energy?
RW: It's like insane. You kind of wonder, do they tell them: (in very official command) "You must laugh at these people or we will hurt you." I think they just have a good time. They go nuts, and especially if you start playing with them, if you start f -- with the officers, or you start making fun, like. You start messing with different groups of people and you talk about the camo, going, "What were you thinking?" The thing you see that kind of gets you is how young, and there's this dedication and this kind of force and you go and you see this youth, and that's why you think "war -- how insane." This youth, these people and this incredible energy and intelligence and dedication is getting chewed up.
"This was from two years ago. That's in Balad, when all the elves came up. Balad, which was a big staging base in Iraq. This is where all these girls came up as elves and reindeer and nurses, Which was so wonderful: Elves, reindeer and IVs." .
"Oh this is Frank, GQ Frank (right). He's studly. He was always studly. He has tattoos that even hardcore Bowery are going, 'Not bad.' It's great when you arrive with GQ Frank because he's sitting in the car, he's got the (automatic weapon). So he's there looking out the door, he's like this all the time (Williams demonstrates -- eyes furiously surveying the area) and he's still talking to us. He's going, 'Is everyone OK?' but he's looking backwards and sideways.".
"This was two years ago again. That's Baghdad. I was given actually the San Francisco camel helmet. This is a traditional macrame camel worn by basically only people in the Haight. 'Yeah, you're gonna get far with that.' "
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