Susan, who shared that the celebration coincided with her and her husband’s wedding anniversary, shared light-hearted memories of her husband as well as the struggles he went through before his death.
Robin was posthumously awarded the 2016 Angel Harvey Heart of a Patriot Award by the USO for his dedication to entertaining the troops through countless tours of duty, including being the first celebrity to ever do a tour.
“He absolutely loved doing the tours as he loved all things military and respected and supported our troops,” a close friend of Susan and Robin told PEOPLE ahead of the event. “And of course, the troops loved him. He actually traveled to 13 countries and performed to approximately 89,400 troops throughout a span of more than a decade of USO tours.”
Susan was in Chicago to accept the award on Robin’s behalf, which also marked a rare public appearance for her in the two years since her husband’s shocking death. Read her full speech below:
I’m here with you tonight because of my husband’s heart. Robin absolutely had the heart of a patriot. I cannot think of a more fitting award for him, nor one that he would be more proud to receive, especially in the presence of all of you. Robin was also a warrior, and like so many of our finest servicemen and women he had battles to face.
The biggest battle of his life was against Lewy Body Disease. This terrifying disease attacks the brain. No matter how many doctors we saw, symptoms we chased, or tests we ran, it was only in autopsy that I learned we had unknowingly been battling a deadly disease. A disease for which there is no cure. The devastation on Robin’s brain from the Lewy bodies, was one of the worst cases medical professionals have ever seen. Yet throughout all of this, his heart remained strong.
In 2009 we were in Cleveland and he’d just come through heart surgery. The days were blending one into the next and he was slowly coming back online. We were walking the halls of the hospital, doing laps as they say. The traveling IV that he gripped and the anti-skid hospital socks were keeping him steady. We neared the nurses’ station, and I stayed back as he approached their desk. His body language and countenance were now very serious, and thoughtful. I watched the concern rise on the faces of the three nurses on duty that night.
Robin got up really close, taking on the air of a respectable CEO. He bent over slightly with his bare bottom hanging out the back of his hospital gown. And with their rapt attention he asked, “Any messages?”
Yes, he was coming back online.
Robin’s heart was healed to perfection and he continued to give generously. He loved his time overseas with the troops. He loved camouflage, gear and all things military. And, he took seriously the idea of “no man left behind.” When he was signing autographs—always sure to touch everyone’s heart with a few words, a handshake or a signature.
Robin honored the values woven into the fabric of a soldier’s heart. Loyalty, duty, service and respect—he himself embodied these qualities and this was his connection to the hearts within all of you.
Though his heart is what called this award to him, Robin’s brain is what took him to a higher mission.
The parallels in his journey with that of a soldier’s are unmistakable. I imagine many people can’t begin to understand the intricacies of the battles you’ve fought as a soldier, or are fighting now. You may not even know the whole picture yourself, just your current mission. Work in the military may feel like survival at times, where the pressures are so overwhelming—life or death—that you just have to focus on the next right thing.
There may be very few indeed who know the specifics of what you are up against. What you go through, no matter how dark and harrowing, may have to be kept in secret so as not to compromise the mission. I’m sure the weight of that loneliness at times feels crushing on your spirit.
This reminds me a lot of brain disease. Oftentimes the person afflicted doesn’t know what they are up against. Their battle can be partially or wholly in secret, either by choice or biological breakdown. It can be just as mysterious for their caregivers and loved ones and doctors, as it is for them. Yet they keep fighting—even while their spirits are feeling crushed.
This was true for Robin. There is no cure for the deadly Lewy Body Disease that took him from us. Nobody chooses brain disease, Robin didn’t.
So many of our servicemen and women end up having to be warriors on the brain battlefield, long after they come home off the front lines. Whether it’s Traumatic Brain Injury, Chronic Pain, PTSD, or depression—they keep fighting. Brave enough to bear the truth of exactly how our brains and spirits get wounded. Meanwhile their caregivers and loved ones are there in the battle with them, sustaining their own injuries.
Robin may have lost his battle here against LBD. But he did not lose the war. No, he’s not done yet. The way I see it, he has brought the light of dawn to a new mission for all of us. That mission is to eradicate brain disease.
I feel as though I am his boots on the ground now—I look up and know I am not alone. People like Lee and Bob Woodward and others are using their painful experience to do triage for those on the brain battlefield.
In 1945 the American Cancer Society put all forms of cancer on the collective map and called it “cancer.” They saw it as one disease and set out to attack each manifestation of it. It is time we take the same approach with the brain—combining medical knowledge, funding, research and efforts to look at brain disease as a whole. I have joined forces with the American Brain Foundation and have taken up their noble mission: to cure all brain disease. Together we can usher in a new era of brain care where early detection, cures and ultimately prevention become reality.
I stand hopeful before all of you. The love my husband and I have shared has been my beacon and my guide. The love all of you give by your choice to take your worst days and use them to give someone their best days—that devotion and caring for others is my strength.
Today is your 75th anniversary. Today, October 22nd, is Robin and my wedding anniversary too, and there’s no place I would rather be. It feels like Robin wanted me here on this day to celebrate with all of you, with our best man Bobcat Goldthwait, and with our maid of honor Jean Horn. I also think my honey may have wanted me to put on a pretty dress and to just feel the love in this room tonight.
Thank you for asking me to accept the “Heart of a Patriot Award” for my husband, Robin Williams. The man who I promise you got more out of being with the troops and all of you than you will ever know.
Thank you for what you gave Robin, it was so, so much. Thank you for what you give our servicemen and women, our country and the world.
God bless you.
–With reporting by Kara Warner