Gulf War comic relief: A mission of mirth

Jill Turnbow hams it up with two soldiers during the first Gulf War. Courtesy photo
Jill Turnbow hams it up with two soldiers during the first Gulf War. Courtesy photo

Jill Turnbow of Cambria says serving in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm changed her life — but she went as a trouper, not a trooper, to entertain, not to fight.

She will be the keynote speaker at the annual Cambria Veterans Day ceremony hosted by American Legion Post No. 432 on Wednesday.

Post Commander Ron Waltman said that the 2009 ceremony is designed to “celebrate what our young servicemen and women are doing for us daily.”

He predicts that people attending the Veterans Day celebration “can expect some wild stories and big laughs,” along with poignant reflections by Turnbow about spending time overseas with soldiers taking a break from the battle zone.

Local theater fans know Turnbow as a Texas-born director-producer, comedian and actress who played “Brenda-Sue Birdwell” in the Cambria Follies. She is also executive director and co-founder of Houselights Theater, based in Allied Arts Theatre at the Old Grammar School.

She manages the Olallieberry Inn, a Cambria bed and breakfast.

At the Veterans Day celebration, Turnbow will talk about a rest-and-recreation (“R&R”) project for troops serving in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm during the first Gulf War. From Christmas 1990 to April 1991, she performed comedy routines for approximately 27,000 troops who helped oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

About 950 military men and women at a time spent three days aboard a former cruise liner, the Cunard Princess, docked in Bahrain.

Turnbow recalled, “It’s a side of the Persian Gulf War you probably didn’t hear about on CNN.”

The R&R program “was such a big secret,” Turnbow said, “nobody knew where we were or what we were doing.”

However, for two weeks during that period, “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau featured the cruise-line breaks in his strip. “He nailed it,” she said. “We couldn’t believe how accurate he was, and had no idea where he got his information.”

Turnbow was a seasoned but still somewhat naïve comic when she came aboard. She had a job, her passport and no real guidelines, she said. She lived and ate on the ship.

As Turnbow matured, so did her 20-minute comedy routine. As it changed, so did her life. “These were some of the finest men I have ever met.”

She later compiled her memories into a one-woman show titled “Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” which she performed in Los Angeles and off Broadway.

In 2001, The Los Angeles Times called it a “sidesplitting solo show … a heartening, harrowing and warmly comical glimpse into the nature of heroism and the patriotic bond among Americans connected by crisis and a common cause.”

Celebrating those who serve the U.S.

The Cambria Veterans Day observance begins at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St. The program includes remarks by Boy Scouts and 4-H representatives and Santa Lucia Middle School students and a keynote talk by comedian and troop entertainer Jill Turnbow. The Cambria Chorale, the FBC Quartet and Al Curtice will sing. The free celebration is presented by American Legion Post No. 432, which will also name its annual Don Bowman Patriotism Award honoree. Afterward, the Sons of the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary will serve barbecued burger or hot dog plates with salad, drink and dessert for $5.