A welcoming presence: Bandsmen the face of the Army in small town California
April 30, 2012
EUREKA, Calif. -- Sergeant Richard Scarlett Jr. joined the Army in 2003 for a new life, but it's the life he left behind that ultimately prevailed.
Through a twist of fate and luck, music, performing and making people feel good crept back up on the former combat engineer, who had thrown away a chance at a production contract to sing for a musical group in Los Angeles when he came into the Army.
"I love performing for people," Scarlett said after a show with the 56th Army Band's swing ensemble, Swingin' Sounds of Courage, that the group put on for the community of Eureka, a northern California coastal town, April 27. "I love to see people's reactions after performances."
But it was about much more than just the audience delight brought on by big band music for Scarlett, a vocalist, and more than 20 other members of the 56th during their visit April 26-29 to play rock and roll and swing music at the town's main high school and lead its annual Rhododendron Parade.
It was a chance to show the public what the Army is really made of.
"Usually, when they see the Army Soldier, they think of the grunt -- the Soldier that's going to be on the battlefield fighting," said Scarlett, a native of Joshua, Texas. "When they see that we have other things besides just the Soldiers that shoot guns, I think people realize that there's more to the Army than just breaking things and killing stuff."
Charles Goodwin Jr. has spent nearly his entire life in Eureka, where the only real military presence comes in the form of a group of Coast Guard personnel stationed nearby.
And at 72, he knows well that the Army comprises more than most will ever see in movies and on TV. He served three years in the Army and even played in a band of his own at Fort Holabird, Md., in the mid 1960s.
"It's a chance for us to relate to the military," said Goodwin, who sat in Eureka High School's auditorium on the same campus he attended nearly 60 years ago to see Scarlett and the other bandsmen perform. "We don't always get a chance to see what's happening (with the military), but to hear the talent that's expressed through the band and see them in their uniforms -- I think that's a welcoming presence."
As a clarinet player for his Army band for the better part of his service, Goodwin can relate to playing music in the military.
But his band was different.
"It wasn't like this one as far as quality," he said, admitting he was actually a 'pretty crappy musician.' "This band brings back memories of what a good military band sounds like.
"It was an outstanding performance."
For Skylar Gren, a local high school senior facing the real world, the military is a potential near-future career choice. But given his family background, it's more than just a possibility.
"My uncle was a Marine veteran, my grandfather was a Marine and my great grandfather was in the Navy," said Gren, who took his girlfriend to the April 27 performance.
His great grandfather played saxophone in a Navy band, but the show was Gren's first opportunity to witness for himself in person the talent he's only ever heard of in stories.
"It's not just about fighting; there's a lot of talent in the military," he said. "You have a wide variety of everything in the military.
"It shows that you can be anybody and be in the military. It's not just macho men."
Close to a half-century past the yearlong tour in Vietnam that injured Army veteran Robert Melugin and ended his service in the military, the 65-year-old stood on a curbside on the morning of April 28 near downtown Eureka, where he's lived for the past five years.
He held up a salute as the front of the 2012 Rhododendron Parade passed by him -- first a color guard and then the tightly formed group of Army bandsmen.
"I really enjoy having the military around us," said Melugin, who served as a Huey helicopter door gunner in 1968 with the 25th Infantry Division. "I think it's a big uplift. I mean, that's all we've got.
"We have freedom because of these gentlemen."
He looked back on his time in the military -- a beloved career cut short by an attack 11 months into his Vietnam deployment.
"I love the Army; I love the military," he said. "I get goose bumps looking at these guys, thinking, 'God, I wish I could be back in there.'"
Melugin recorded video with his cellphone as the band, led by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Islas, stepped in perfect rhythm under a sunny California sky past area residents who rarely have the chance to see the military in such a capacity.
Some beamed as they waved miniature American flags through the cool air, some held their hands firmly over their hearts, and some stood solemnly at attention -- many like Soldiers themselves, though they'd never served a day in the military.
Patriotism was alive and well on the residential and downtown streets of Eureka.
"This might be the only contact they have with Soldiers throughout some of these peoples' lives, so it's very important," said Islas, a Stockton, Calif., native. "They don't have these kinds of bands coming through here, so they really enjoyed it."
And Eureka Mayor Frank Jager agrees completely.
"We normally don't have that kind of participation from a big, first class group like them," said Jager, who served 14 years in the Army National Guard and waved to residents during the parade from atop a fire truck rolling along right behind the band.
"Just the exposure, the music and seeing them participate in such a big community event is just a wonderful thing for all of us."