A band apart

By Staff Sgt. Gary Witte
300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment Read

FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. –If your job requires the ability to bandage bullet wounds, help secure a military base and master a musical instrument, you’re probably in a U.S. Army band.

All of these skills were called into play for members of the 300th Army Band when they took part in a multi-week training operation at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., in March. The Warrior Exercise drew more than 3,500 reserve soldiers from across America to simulate nation-rebuilding operations.

The band’s presence could be heard throughout the operation, ranging from the live trumpet call of morning reveille to shouted commands during combat training missions in the afternoon.

Dusk often saw lively concerts for soldiers in the dining facility tent and each evening closed with taps echoing across the camp.

“We remind them they’re part of an organization,” U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Chris Galeano of San Diego, a squad leader and clarinet player, said. “We remind them why they joined in the first place. Before people join … a lot of the time the only contact they have with the military is with a band.”

Members of the band said other soldiers are usually amazed the unit exists.

“It’s always a surprise,” U.S. Army Spc. John Rathbone of Hesperia, Calif., said. “Or it’s, ‘Why do we have an Army band?’”

Rathbone, a clarinet player who deployed to Iraq with the 1st Armored Division’s band in 2010, cited centuries of history linking music with the American military, dating back to the Revolutionary War.

“The military is all about tradition and part of the military’s history is music,” he said, citing bugle calls as an example. “We’ve always been around from the very beginning.”

Concert halls, parades and military ceremonies are the band’s most common venues. Galeano said they present an example of what the military is about to the civilian world and this makes band members conscientious about the image they present.

“We need to make sure we’re really squared away,” she said, adding they are careful not to joke or lounge around when in the public eye. “We don’t want to represent poorly…when we hit the ground, we’re in the public eye until the very end.”

Band members have to meet the same standards as all soldiers–including basic training, rifle marksmanship and other requirements.

“We still have to pass our PT test,” U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Grace J. Chin of Torrance, Calif., a percussionist, said. “Everything is the same on the military side.”

After basic, would-be band members must prove their musical skills to the U.S. Army School of Music in Virginia Beach, Va. To gain admission, they must apply for an audition, then pass it and be selected for a vacancy. As the number of army bands have been reduced, gaining entrance has become tougher. If they can get in, the soldiers spend about two months learning musical theory and history while practicing and drilling for hours each day.

“They have high expectations,” Rathbone said of the school. “Especially now that they don’t just expect the classical stuff. They expect you to play everything from salsa to Dixie to pop music.”

The 300th AB demonstrated this eclectic mix during its dining facility concerts. The band’s acoustic pop group delivered popular tunes across the spectrum from Adele to Sublime, while on a following night, its Dixieland combo hit standards like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and a hopping version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Players truly struck a chord among their audience with a 12-bar blues version of the cadence “Everywhere I go.” The song, a plea to drill sergeants everywhere, provoked laughter and smiles of recognition among the soldiers eating their meals.

U.S. Army Sgt. Joseph D. Lyons of Bluefield, W.V., a human resources NCO for the 336th Military Police Battalion, was in the audience and said the live performance was good for everyone’s morale.

“I think it goes a long way to breaking the monotony of the day,” Lyons said. “It makes chow time a lot more enjoyable.”

The band’s work was not limited to entertainment during the March exercise. Members took turn on guard duty for the camp as well as trained on various combat scenarios, including convoy operations, shooting simulations and tactical medical care.

Even before the exercise started, several of the band’s members had participated in a 10-day advanced training event, which allowed them to conduct urban combat tactics, night live fire marksmanship and other drills, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kirk K. Wang of San Diego, a squad leader and trombone player, said.

“I really like doing the tactical training,” Wang said, noting the unit’s NCOs even took charge of running the rifle qualification range. “It’s a lot of work, but its good training.”

Meanwhile, the band’s main mission remains the music and the benefits it can bring to their fellow Soldiers.

Rathbone said during one concert at a dining facility at Baghdad International Airport, the audience enjoyed it so much, they started singing along with the band. Troops came up to the players afterwards, shook their hands and told them their performance had made it a better day.

“Which is hard to do in Iraq,” he said.

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