> Colonel Mike Terrill

Leo "Mike" Terrill

Col Mike Terrill

To say Mike Terrill had a diverse and exciting career would be the classic definition of an understatement.

From playing baseball for a Baltimore Orioles farm team, to going to South Korea as an Army soldier, to teaching English at his high school alma mater, to advising a popular TV show, to volunteering for an organization that trained Sunday school teachers, Mike did and saw just about everything — and that list is just a small sample. And, oh yes, in between he became one of the finest public affairs officers to ever wear an Air Force uniform.

That wide variety of experiences also describes Mike’s military career. After graduating from his Arizona high school in 1955, Mike was drafted — but not by the Army. He decided, though, to turn down an offer from the Orioles and instead enlisted in the Army, pulling a tour of duty in Korea as a chaplain’s assistant and clerk typist. After three years in the Army, he received a hardship discharge when his father, who was a miner, became ill with tuberculosis and Mike had to return home to care for the family.

After working in the same mine as his dad for a while, Mike pursued his college education, first at community college and then at Northern Arizona University, where he earned a degree in English in 1962. After graduation, he taught English at the high school where just a few years before he had been a student. In 1963, he was accepted at Officer Training School and began a 22-year Air Force career, though he didn’t start out in public affairs.

Mike proved his aptitude in multiple disciplines during his time in the Air Force. He completed navigator training at Mather AFB, California, and was an award-winning supply officer at Webb AFB, Texas, and Da Nang, South Vietnam. While at Da Nang, he was selected for AFIT, and went on to get his Master's degree in public relations from Boston University in 1969.

From military enlistment...to military retirement...

Army soldier
Army Private Terrill
in Korea
Air Force OTS
Soon-to-be Lt Terrill
at OTS
Mike and President Reagan
A handshake from President Reagan
Retirement Photo from Johnny Carson
A retirement salute from Johnny Carson

After AFIT, Mike made his mark in Air Force public affairs, managing to find himself in some of the most difficult PA challenges of the 1970s and 80s, handling them with a savvy that earned him numerous accolades and awards, including the Aviation/Space Writers Association’s Public Information Officer of the Year award.

Mike Terrill and Reporters
Mike kept his cool when surrounded by reporters at Lackland AFB when the Shah of Iran was admitted to Wilford Hall Medical Center.

The most visible highlight of Mike’s career was when he was the chief of public affairs at Lackland AFB, Texas. In 1979, at the onset of the Iranian hostage crisis, the overthrown Shah of Iran came to Lackland’s Wilford Hall Medical Center to recover from cancer treatment. News of the Shah’s presence resulted in protests, demonstrations, and threats of violence, and made international headlines. For Mike, it meant fending off hundreds of reporters clamoring for information, and he earned praise for his calm, measured response in an impossibly difficult situation.

Mike headed to the Pentagon after Lackland, and by now his ability to handle countless media inquiries a day was well established. That talent came in handy as the spokesperson for the B-1 bomber and the MX intercontinental ballistic missile. The planned mobile basing of the MX in Nevada and Utah was especially sensitive politically in those states, but once again Mike dealt with those sensitivities with the coolness under pressure that was his trademark.

Mike had fun working with the entertainment community in his last active duty assignment as the director of the Air Force Western Region Public Affairs office in Los Angeles. He was an Air Force technical advisor for the popular ABC-TV series, Call to Glory, starring Craig T. Nelson, Elizabeth Shue and Keenan Wynn. Other entertainment notables he worked with included David Hartman, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jimmy Stewart, Jerry Reed, and John Avnet.

After retiring from active duty in 1985, Mike continued to display the variety of interests and talents he had shown in the Air Force. He worked for the Harris Group in Reston, Virginia; the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico; the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance in Alexandria, Virginia; and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Long Beach, California. He was the deputy director of Public Affairs for the Missile Defense Agency at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama from 2009-2016 before retiring for good, providing him more time to devote to the numerous community, church, and charity causes he championed.

Though Mike’s career accomplishments were legend, what set him apart from other public affairs professionals was his commitment to excellence and compassion for others. He was respected by both his seniors and subordinates as a “take-charge” leader who excelled when things got tough. He mentored scores of military and civilian public affairs professionals, providing them with the knowledge, encouragement and confidence to succeed.

To gain a better sense of why Mike was so respected and loved by colleagues, friends, and family, read the tributes he received after his 2020 death from Covid in AFPAA's newsletter, News and Notes, and view the touching and insightful memorial video his son Marshall produced. Mike was such a fixture in his community that the local television station profiled him when he passed in a story you can view here.

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