It was 1987, a little over 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War, when Good Morning, Vietnam opened in theaters across America. The actor playing Airman DJ Adrian Cronauer won a Golden Globe Award for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture”, an American Comedy Award for “Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role)”, and was nominated for a “Best Actor” Academy Award. That actor was someone very special.
His talent and genius for comedy so captured the insanity and stresses of war that he won the hearts of vets everywhere. Heart. That was Robin Williams.
I doubt if more than a handful of people know the part Robin Williams played in the earliest days of the National Veterans Foundation. Its predecessor, the Vietnam Veterans Aid Foundation was only two years old at the time the Good Morning Vietnam came out. We were struggling (this is the way of non-profits, apparently) to serve Vietnam veterans trying to transition home, pretty much exactly what we do today. It would be seven years before we changed our name to the National Veterans Foundation to reflect the new range of the population we serve.
In 1987 comedian Blake Clark (a combat Vietnam vet and an honorary NVF Board Member) put together a comedy benefit called Pack of Laughs Now. Producer Gloria Sykes, who was familiar with the work I was doing with vets, knew Robin Williams and wondered if he’d agree to join the lineup of comedians. She introduced him to me and we went to Blake Clark. The show was a resounding success and Pack of Laughs ran for 10 years, providing funding for services to thousands of veterans.
After the initial benefit in 1987, Robin Williams, acting from his heart and core values, generously donated all of his music royalties from Good Morning, Vietnam to the VVAF and the NVF. It was a substantial gift, and it enabled us to reach out to more veterans than we’d ever been able to before.
Robin Williams was a USO entertainer in the tradition of Bob Hope. But that wasn’t all. Williams’ long-standing support for the military was evident in the words from active duty military and vets after his passing. There are too many to list here. Google “Robin Williams and veterans” to see a few of the stories. Among them, this one from Rear Admiral John Kirby:
I once asked Robin Williams to offer advice for my son, who would soon turn 18. "Follow your heart," he said. "The head is sometimes wrong."
There’s that word again, heart.
He knew what it felt like to be in a crazy-making world. His vulnerability helped show us how to make that tolerable. His humanity stands as an example to all of us. We’ll miss him.