Soldiers first - then they wail on the horns
March 25, 2013
FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. - If your job includes knowing how to bandage wounds, secure access control points and wail on a trombone, you're probably in a U.S. Army band.
All of these skills came into play for members of the 300th Army Band during the multi-week Warrior Exercise at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., in March. The band's presence could be heard throughout the exercise, ranging from live trumpets at morning Reveille to shouted commands during combat training missions in the afternoon.
Dusk often brought 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 in 2010 with the 1st Armored Division Band from Fort Bliss, Texas, cited centuries of history connecting music and 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, using bugle calls as an example. "We've always been around from the very beginning."
Concert halls, parades and military ceremonies are the band's usual venues. Galeano said they represent the Army 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 in public. "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 physical fitness 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."
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 pass an audition and be selected for a vacancy. As the number of Army bands has been reduced, it's 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 from Adele to Sublime, while on another night, a Dixieland combo hit standards like "When the Saints Go Marching In" and a hopping version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Players 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.
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 that night. He 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."
During the Warrior Exercise, the band's work was not limited to entertainment. Members took turns on guard duty for the camp and trained on combat skills including convoy operations, shooting simulations and tactical medical care.
Before the exercise, several band members participated in a 10-day advanced training event with 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, was among them.
"I really like doing the tactical training," Wang said, noting the unit's NCOs 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 brings to the Army and 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.
Fort Hunter Liggett is the largest installation in the Army Reserve, with more than 160,000 acres of mountains, valleys, rivers, plains and forests. It provides ideal maneuver areas and state of the art training facilities.
The 91st Training Division, headquartered at Fort Hunter Liggett, trains and assesses Army Reserve units, and supports training for joint, combined and active Army forces. Thousands of Soldiers and dozens of units from around the country participated in the March Warrior Exercise, which provides realistic training for military maneuvers and tactics such as base security, convoy operations and battle reaction drills during simulated enemy attacks.