When I Met Robin Williams in Afghanistan

Robin Williams had his demons but it never stopped him from making troops laugh on the numerous standup tours he did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty

At the prefab dorms on the American base in Kandahar, I ran into my neighbor from the bunk next door. The military makes few concessions to visiting VIPs. Robin Williams was on his way to the showers down the hall, wearing a white t-shirt and a towel over his shoulder. It was the week before Christmas, in 2010.

He was happy to talk. He said he did regular gigs on the USO holiday circuit. This wasn't his first time in Afghanistan, and he'd also played Iraq. On this trip, he brought along his friend, Lance Armstrong. The cyclist had turned the heads of the women in the dorm on his way back from the showers, wearing just a towel. He struck many people there, at the time, not in retrospect, as arrogant and cold. Robin Williams was something else.

He was sweet and humble and spoke quietly. He seemed impressed by my job. He pointed to his heart, referring to his recent surgery, saying that he was taking life easier. His eyes at once were sad and lively.

Later that night, this low-key man went out on stage with otherworldly energy. These were the two Robins that the obituaries this past week talk about. Hundreds of American soldiers in Afghanistan packed a dusty field. He joked about the deafening noise levels in the old C-130 transport planes and sex at his age, then approaching 60. He used language to make his host, the Navy Admiral who was the country's top military officer, blush. It was a fun standup routine.

A couple years ago, I was walking one weekday morning down Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and came upon Robin Williams. He was standing in the middle of the block, the only person there. He was in a suit, which I presumed was his costume for a shot underway, though I didn't see any crew or anyone around him

I crossed the street and shook his hand, half aware that I was disrupting his work. I told him I'd met him in Afghanistan. "Ah, that trip with Lance," he said, then glanced down, with those melancholy eyes. Armstrong was the disgraced champion by then and he was doubtless disappointed by what happened but didn't say so. I'm not sure he remembered our meeting in Kandahar, probably not, but it felt like the other day to me. Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board.