By Diana BahrJuly 3, 2008
MILAN, Italy - Four Warrior in Transition Soldiers stationed in Vicenza, Italy, experienced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity June 25 when they met guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who is on tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Europe.
"I'm a huge fan of Bruce and the E Street Band," said 21-year-old Sgt. Justin Varnes, a self-taught musician who plays in a band with fellow concert attendee and WTU Soldier, 24-year-old Pfc. Christopher Gross, as they made their way to the show.
"My friends say I was born in the wrong generation because I prefer music from the 60s and 70s," he added.
Another WTU Soldier on the trip, 23-year-old Pfc. Max Kenworthy, nodded and added: "My parents are big fans of the band. I grew up listening to their music ... it's great to be able to see them in person and meet Steve Van Zandt."
The Soldiers brought an unusual gift for Van Zant - who also starred in the HBO series, "The Sopranos" - to thank him for his support and for the opportunity to meet him: a crutch Varnes used after he was injured in Afghanistan in 2007.
"We call it the Golden Crutch," Varnes said laughing, as the Soldiers took turns signing it before entering the Milan soccer stadium to watch the band's performance. "Since we're all members of the Warrior in Transition Unit, and have medical issues, we thought the crutch would be a great way to say thanks for all he's doing to support the troops."
The group met up with the famed musician/actor prior to the show, presenting him the crutch as he joked that not only was it a perfect gift, but he may have to use it as well because he has his own difficulties in walking.
The meeting between Van Zandt and the Soldiers was arranged through Col. Scott Malcom, commander of American Forces Network-Europe, who met the guitarist when the band played in Dusseldorf, Germany. Van Zandt had donated his new show, "Little Steven's Underground Garage," to AFN, and Malcom wished to thank him personally.
"It's my way of saying thank you for your sacrifice and service to our country," Van Zandt told the colonel. "I think we're typical representatives of virtually all Americans - we're behind you 100 percent. We hope you come home safe and want to give you a little taste of home [through the radio show]."
Getting the rights to air Van Zandt's radio show took a year and the combined efforts of Malcom in Europe, Van Zant in New York and American Forces Radio and Television Service in Riverside, Calif. The show premiered June 14 on AFN The Eagle.
Van Zandt sent a text message to Malcom a few days after the Dusseldorf concert, saying if there was anything else he could do for the troops, just ask. Fortunately for the Vicenza troops, Malcom did. A trip to Milan for the WTU Soldiers to hear the band and meet Van Zant was coordinated by AFN-Europe, with Van Zandt also agreeing to record an interview and messages to be broadcast later.
Midway through Van Zant's interview with Robert Sekula, AFN South producer,
E Street guitar player Nils Lofgren, bass player Garry Tallent and organist
Charlie Giordano arrived to meet the Soldiers and also offered to tape a
couple of spots as well.
While returning to Vicenza after the concert, the WTU quartet recounted the night's events.
"Awesome," said Gross, a comment that was echoed by Kenworthy and Varnes.
The fourth Soldier on the trip, 21-year-old Grand Rapids-native, Spc. Carl Vandenberg, admitted he was not a big fan of the band and had never seen The Sopranos, so his outlook was a bit different.
"The concert was pretty good," he said on the way back from Milan. "I was impressed by Van Zandt. I think he's sincere and giving us tickets to the concert was not just a gesture; I think he means it when he says he supports the troops. That's cool."
"Little Steven's Underground Garage" airs Saturdays from 4-6 p.m. Central European Time on AFN The Eagle and is also available on AFN decoders. Check out the AFN Web site: www.afneurope.net.
(Diana Bahr serves with USAG Vicenza Public Affairs.)