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Good Morning, Afghanistan: Robin Williams visits the troops

The comic mixes small shows with time for photos with soldiers -- a typical trip for today's military entertainers.

October 22, 2002|Michael A. Lev | Chicago Tribune

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Robin Williams came here to entertain the troops. Most of his jokes cannot be repeated, but not because they contained military secrets.

That, at least, jibes with the World War II-era stereotype of a traveling USO show. But the rest of Williams' visit showed how much some things have changed.

During one colorful performance at a supply depot at Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, Williams accidentally soaked Pfc. Krystal Heard of Maywood, Ill., with water.

"Uh, oh," Williams said as the crowd roared with laughter. "I'm sorry for spraying you, girl. Don't go Oprah on me."

Maybe it was the fact that no alcohol is permitted on base, or that most soldiers here are somewhere deep in the middle of a six- to nine-month-long assignment, or simply that the troops were happy to escape the swirling Afghan dust for a few minutes, but Williams' appearances were a major hit.

He spent several days in Afghanistan, leaving Sunday.

Williams' handlers said he would not answer questions from the media and insisted that he not be photographed with soldiers holding guns, which was a little tricky since the basic dress code for soldiers in a war zone mandates that they carry rifles.

But Williams was extremely warm and friendly, repeating numerous times in show-biz fashion how happy he was to be here, even though this was Afghanistan.

He even did a version of the comedian's classic "I just flew in from out of town ..." line.

"The C-17 is a great plane ... if you're already deaf," he said, referring to the military's noisy cargo and passenger carrier.

Other subjects Williams riffed on included: Osama bin Laden, President Bush, military haircuts, the dust and, for some reason, golf.

"We're here at the third hole of the Afghan Open," he whispered into his microphone in golf-announcer fashion. "We can't play the 10th hole, because it's still mined."

Instead of doing a Bob Hope-like, big-deal show, Williams flitted through Bagram, doing little performances, signing dozens and dozens of autographs, and posing for photos.

Not only is Bob Hope retired, but so is the whole concept of the traveling USO show. There are no more variety shows like the kind Rob and Laura Petrie performed in during their Army days on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

These days, the military tends to get individual performers or celebrities, said Lt. Tina Kroske, a base spokeswoman.

Among the first visitors to Bagram were the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. Joan Jett recently performed. Another visitor was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ate dinner with troops from his city. Next at Bagram, they're hoping for a country-western singer, and more stars like Williams.

An Afghanistan assignment is a heavy-duty chore, soldiers say, with not much in the way of distractions other than waiting for a hot shower to wash away the dirt, which covers the terrain in an Aspen-perfect three-inch blanket of powder. Then the wind blows it around.

New arrivals sometimes think they are getting a bad cold, but that turns out to be the dust. They call it the Bagram crud.

The sprawling base, in a desert valley outside Kabul at the end of a two-lane highway still lined with live land mines, is a heavily fortified little piece of America.

The American flag flies. "Frasier" is broadcast on Armed Forces television. The military-run U.S. post office will mail an Afghan carpet home for $9. And for some reason, there are free Tootsie Rolls available everywhere -- in recreation tents, in offices, at the Red Cross canteen.

The bureaucratic peculiarities of military life have always been fodder for humor, but few soldiers professed to know any good Bagram jokes.

"I've got one," Heard said. "Two weeks. You think something will take 30 seconds, it takes two weeks."

Michael A. Lev is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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