FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Earlier this year, after the Army band from Fort Benning took part in a big music festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the musicians were approached by members of the public, some in tears, eager for a handshake and friendly word with America's sons and daughters in uniform.It is something the members of Fort Benning's Maneuver Center of Excellence Band experience virtually anytime they perform for the public in a concert, parade or other event.The annual Riverbend Festival spanned several nights and included, on Memorial Day, a military appreciation night, and it was then that the MCoE Band performed."There were tears, tears in people's eyes" in Chattanooga that evening, said Capt. Aaron Morris, commander of Fort Benning's Maneuver Center of Excellence Band. "Just so much pride and appreciation. 'Thank you, thank you for your service,'" they'd say.
"'Again, thank you for what you do for our country,'" they would tell Morris and other band members.
"I mean, I can't even count how many times that happened or how many other Soldiers in this unit had that experience," said Morris, 34, of Finksburg, Maryland.Some of the civilians tell proudly of a son or daughter in uniform or a father or grandfather who served. Some tell of their own time in uniform. Others simply thank the Soldiers for their military service. And some who approach bear the enduring sorrows of having lost a loved one killed in action.It is these face-to-face encounters with the American public that represent, perhaps as much or more than the music itself, what band members see as a little-noticed additional role they aim to fulfill: helping give members of the public a personal connection to the Army's Soldiers."I think what we do is more than foster goodwill," said Morris, who notes that many civilians rarely if ever get to meet a service member. "It's more personal than that," he said. "It's connecting them with a Soldier, because they never get the chance."Musical excellence and soldierly deportment are crucial to what they do, the musicians acknowledge.But by making themselves available to members of the public when possible, they said, they're compounding the Army's accrued emotional capital."People will come up to us and express their gratitude, that 'Thank you for what you do,'" said 1st Sgt. Hubert "Bill" Holmes, 46, of Langhorne, Pennsylvania. He and other band members believe that those civilians really want to thank the Army and all its Soldiers."The Army is being thanked," Holmes said. "The Soldier that's in the field, that's been there for 20 days doing combat-related operations, he or she is being thanked, through" the band.So Morris and Holmes often remind the band that they are a link between the Army and the American public. They call it being "The Handshake.""I don't think that the average American actually gets the opportunity to feel connected on a personal basis with the Soldier, that they get to shake hands, that they get to say thank you," said Morris."We are that handshake," said Morris. "That's something we take great pride in."We are your Army," he said. "You are seeing a Soldier right now. We are representing all the men and women that are out there on the front lines that you don't get a chance to interact with.Some of the warmest encounters are often with civilians who have a family tie to the military.While the band was at Chattanooga for the Riverbend Festival, a middle-aged woman approached Morris."She said, 'My father served in Vietnam, and it's so great,'" Morris said. "'I haven't seen a Soldier in so long. This is a Navy town. Where are you from?' And we started talking and sharing our stories."Then the woman left, but about an hour later came back."She pulled up on her phone a black-and-white photo that she had of her father in uniform," said Morris. "She said 'Look, look, there he is. There he is right there.' I think it reconnected her as a Family member of a Soldier."Morris sees that exchange as the type that forges bonds between individual Americans and the Army."Because that's our goal," he said. "Our goal is to go out there and to be a conduit for connection, a conduit for building understanding between the Army and the nation."While many such interactions happen at concerts or parades, they sometimes happen in grim circumstances. At such times, and because of the circumstances, audience and musicians alike may be moved. And it can happen wherever in the world the musicians may be serving at the time.That's been the experience of Staff Sgt. Richard Scarlett, 38, of Joshua, Texas, a vocalist with the MCoE Band and a father of five. About a decade ago he was stationed in Germany as a member of the U.S. Army Europe Chorus.
On one occasion the Army sent the chorus to Washington, D.C. to perform for various Army special events. While there they were brought to what was then the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to sing for hospital patients and staff. It was a clear October day.At one point they were led to the "critical ward" and the bedside of a Soldier who'd been severely wounded in action, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, Scarlett is not sure.The Soldier was bandaged head to foot, and in traction. With him were his mother and young wife. The women stood wordless, holding each other, Scarlett recalled.As Scarlett recounted the visit during a recent interview, a tremor came into his voice and tears stood in his eyes.
"It's hard to even think about it," said Scarlett. "It was like what you would see in a movie almost."The chorus of about a dozen Soldiers drew up around the foot of the wounded Soldier's bed, Scarlett, as the lead singer, closest, the other singers just behind him.The chorus sang, a capella, "God Bless the U.S.A."As the chorus sang, Scarlett saw that the wife and mother, still holding each other, began, silently, to weep."And we were holding back tears the whole time, singing this song, trying to do the best performance we could," he said. "And afterwards, it was just the most emotional moment I have ever experienced from a Family, from us -- I can't even put it into words -- the experience."I literally held back tears all the way through it and I could hear all the Soldiers behind me and I could hear them just sniffling the whole time and I literally broke down in the hallway afterwards," said Scarlett. "Because as a Soldier we don't want to see our own in a situation, feeling any kind of pain like that."At other times, the band members touch the public in far happier circumstances, especially with children, who are typically thrilled at seeing Soldiers."The little kids especially, they love Soldiers and getting to touch a real live Soldier," said Sgt. 1st Class Lani Yearicks, who plays trombone with the MCoE Band. Yearicks, 43, of Gwinn, Michigan, has two sons."Sometimes, that's a first for them, and something they're gonna go back and tell their classmates the next day at school," Yearicks said of the children she's met as a band member."I mean, I have little kids coming up to me with the big smile on their face," she said. "'Cause, 'Oooh. I get to shake an Army Soldiers hand!' You know, you can see that look on their face that like, it just made their day."And of course, you can see the look of pride in the parents or the grandparents faces when the child is so happy. They can tell that their kid is happy, so they're happy."It makes me happy, because of course, it's the mom in me, too," she said. "Where I kind of tune into little kids 'cause I've had my own, and so I always try and give them high-fives or shake their hands or whatever."Especially, you know, if they come up to me if they want to give me a hug, I'll give them a hug or a high-five or whatever it is. It kind of makes my day too cause I like making kids happy."Band members are quick to acknowledge that measuring the goodwill they bring about - much less trying to somehow document it numerically - is frustratingly elusive if not impossible."How do you assign a value to that?" said Morris. "How do you assign a value to inspiring someone to tears? What's the cost on that?"We operate inside the human domain" he said. "And we're trying to connect the Army and to build that support. And it's a difficult domain to quantify impact in. How do you measure support? Would they have felt the same way if we weren't there? I don't know. I like to think that we have that positive impact."Nevertheless, Morris and Holmes continue to remind the MCoE Band's musicians that they are the "handshake" linking the Army and the public."I tell the Soldiers," said Morris, "'You're representing the United States Army and everything it stands for.
"'So when you're having interactions with audience members, whether it's through your presence on stage, or marching down Main Street, U.S.A., or if it's shaking hands and having a conversation with someone either before or after a concert, be mindful of what you represent. Because this is a chance that we have to connect the Army with the people we serve.'"---The Maneuver Center of Excellence Band is scheduled to present Spirit of the Season at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, 900 Broadway, Columbus, Georgia. The concert is free, but tickets are required. They are available at the RiverCenter Box Office.