Veteran performer puts spotlight on PTSD

Reconnects with fellow veterans, orphanage they saved in Viet Nam

There are probably few people in America today who can bring more experience to a one-man show than Billy Terrell, a 50-year veteran of the entertainment industry and a guy who has seen it all. He has done everything on stage — singing, playing the piano, doing stand-up comedy — as well as telling stories and anecdotes.

His most important experience, however, is far more compelling and emotional than an average night at the theater. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, Terrell has come to grips with his past in recent years and is on a quest to share his story with America. He brings his one-man  show to The Bijou on Fairfield Avenue in downtown Bridgeport on Wednesday, April 9, at 7 p.m.

“I never would have been able to do it without counseling for the PTSD,” said Terrell, referring to his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder. “That is what has made it possible.”

What is possible is Terrell utilizing all of his talents to bring an intimate, poignant, funny, and emotional show to every person who has a chance to see it. Drawing on all of his talents and his horrific experiences, the veteran performer pulls everyone watching into a world only he has known — yet he does it with laughs and love.

“I’ve been told that it’s so honest, it’s so real that it just resonates with people,” explained Terrell. “It just comes across to the audience as being incredibly honest.”

The plight of Vietnam veterans remains a largely untold story, despite a discernible change in public attitudes toward veterans. Having fought an unpopular war, they returned home and were not respected for their sacrifices, to say the least. More importantly, while many suffered from PTSD, resources to properly deal with the affliction were not in existence.

Terrell has lived quietly with some of those symptoms for 47 years, but no longer.

“When I first got back from the war I wanted to bury it,” Terrell recalled. “I wanted to block out the entire experience.”

As a teenager, the future raconteur got his start in show business while working at the Empress Motel on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J.

“It was called a motel but it was really a beautiful hotel,” said Terrell. “It was first-class all the way. It was right on the boardwalk with the race track right there, too. It was a glamorous place and attracted a lot of big names, and I’m not just talking about entertainers, I’m talking about gamblers and gangsters. They always asked me to go to their room and serve the drinks when they were playing cards. I guess they figured I could keep my mouth shut.”

Entertainment was also big at the Empress Motel, attracting such rock and roll stars as Gene Pitney. Often the performers would ask young Billy Terrell to sing with them on stage, and that is how he got bitten by the show biz bug.

In the spring of 1965, after a few years pitching songs and auditioning around New York City, he was signed by Kama Sutra Records as a writer/artist. His first recorded and commercially released song was They Said It Couldn’t Be Done by The Duprees on Columbia Records, which was the “B” side of their hit Around the Corner. Less than two months after signing with the company, Terrell was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam as a supply specialist in 1966-67. Coming home to a drastically changed social climate and music scene initially caused him to wonder if he would ever be able to adjust enough to compete and follow through with his dream.

“I found the reaction to men who had served in Vietnam was distasteful. and I dismissed that part of my life for a long time,” he noted.

The only mementos he kept were a collection of photographs from times he spent at Mang Lang Orphanage in Tuy Hoa. He and a group of soldiers in his unit had voluntarily donated portions of their wages to build a new home for a group of nuns and 110 children who were tossed out by the Vietcong.

“They would have died if it weren’t for us,” Terrell said. “They were left abandoned in the forest. All of the nuns and children would have died.”

The performer broke through musically in 1969 with his first hit, Never Gonna Let Him Know by Debbie Taylor, which reached No. 5 on the national R&B charts. To date, Terrell has written, arranged and produced more than 2,000 commercially released records, with 59 reaching the national and international charts.

Terrell later mined the comedy field, which he enjoyed but eventually left because the comedy business turned out to be not all fun and games.

“For a long time I loved it,” he explained. “I worked with people like Ray Romano, Drew Carey, Adam Sandler — all guys who went on to become huge successes. I played in just about every town in Connecticut, by the way. We’re talking about over 200 shows a year, and I was on the circuit for more than six years. In the end there were just too many jerks. And another thing — and this isn’t because I’m old (69) either — I don’t like the way comedy is today. Dropping a few swears isn’t funny, but most comedians now think that’s humor. But I do still have a following and I do a few shows a year.”

After his comedy stint, Terrell began thinking about his past and the photos of the orphanage he had taken so long ago. Terrell hadn’t looked at those photos for 44 years, but one day an impulse prompted him to look up the Mang Lang Orphanage on the Internet. To his surprise, he discovered a number of articles revealing that the orphanage still exists. That set into motion a remarkable chain of events. He contacted two of his fellow officers and reunited with them, then sought treatment at his local veterans hospital, where he now receives counseling.

In November 2013, Terrell returned to Vietnam and experienced a profoundly moving reunion at the orphanage. He was greeted by Sister Michelle, the now 85-year-old nun who had wandered onto his army camp in 1966 seeking help the day after being expelled from the orphanage.

“It was absolutely amazing,” Terrell said. “I had one tough night, the night before the reunion, after I looked out of my hotel window and saw the fields where a lot of the action had taken place. I contacted my counselor and did some exercises and got through it, thankfully. Because the reunion was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. The children who came still remembered all that happened.”

Terrell said the show at The Bijou is going to be outstanding.

“I’ve seen The Bijou and it’s a great venue,” he said. “The show is very conversational, as if I am speaking to only one person. The show covers it all, from music to comedy to some great anecdotes and storytelling. It’s very emotional. There is even a tribute to Sammy Cahn, who was a great friend of mine.”

The proceeds from the performance at The Bijou will help finance The Other Side of War, a documentary by Terrell that will be broadcast on PBS and was commissioned by WLIW-NY, scheduled to air in 2015.

“This is the back story of the war,” Terrell explained. “Everybody knows about all of the horrors and the suffering; I didn’t want to rehash all that. This is about some of the great stories and the great things people accomplished under the worst possible circumstances. Many are still contributing, and that’s a story I think needs to be told.”

For the first time since 1967, Sister Michelle is face-to-face with Billy Terrell, who with other soldiers saved Mang Lang Orphanage during the Viet Nam War. Terrell will discuss his journey to and from the war at the Bijou in Bridgeport April 9.

For the first time since 1967, Sister Michelle is face-to-face with Billy Terrell, who with other soldiers saved Mang Lang Orphanage during the Viet Nam War. Terrell will discuss his journey to and from the war at the Bijou in Bridgeport April 9.

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