By Kelly P. Pate and Cherish WashingtonJune 19, 2009
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 19, 2009) -- During Army's birthday this year, the service is celebrating the noncommissioned officer, the support of families to the warfighter, and a rich Army heritage of more than 200 years -- all stories worth telling...
The Army brought its own Soldier talent to the National Capital Region to help celebrate musically the Army's 234th birthday, June 14, including media opportunities with singer/songwriter Soldiers and to provide the evening entertainment at the June 13 Army Birthday Ball, where the idea was keeping the focus on Soldiers, said Tim Higdon, director of U.S. Army Entertainment.
"We brought in five Soldiers and one family member that have previous Department of the Army-level experience, including Operation Rising Star, the Army Soldier Show, or previous performances at the Birthday Ball," Higdon said. "By having Soldiers come and perform it allowed us to show where that pride of being a Soldier comes from. What better way to look at the Army as the strength of the nation and the noncommissioned officer as the strength of the Army than having Soldiers involved in every aspect."
Among the talent is a songwriting duo who teamed up to relate the Army story they have experienced firsthand.
Sgt. 1st Class Sean Bennett and Spc. Daniel Jens co-wrote a Soldier song they have performed in the D.C. area before, at an Association of the U.S. Army convention in October 2008. This time, while in the D.C. area to perform at the ball, they toted their guitars to radio stations that wanted to hear a Soldier's story not from a popular artist without a military background, but from the Soldiers themselves who write and sing about their Army lives both on and off-duty.
Bennett, a Soldier from Fort Campbell, Ky., is a noncommissioned officer who knows what it is to be a warfighter, to experience the loss of fallen comrades in combat, and to be wounded. His decorations include the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.
In 2007, after being injured in Iraq, he competed on Nashville Star -- the nationally televised talent contest where Bennett debuted his singing and songwriting ability. Bennett teamed up with Jens, a Soldier from Fort Hood, Texas, to hone a Soldier song called "Life of a Soldier."
"I tell everybody I don't like singing the song because it really does take me back," Bennett said. "I know if I wrote it that way ... I probably did it right."
Jens found the national spotlight when he made it to the Top 20 on "America's Got Talent" in the summer of 2008. Jens won the Army's Blackjack Idol contest when he served with 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. After returning from a 15-month deployment, he headed for the nationally televised contest.
Bennett's and Jens' combined efforts birthed a country song that tells the personal story of an Army NCO -- a story they sang for radio show hosts during Army Birthday.
The lyrics have their roots in Bennett's experience as a casualty assistance noncommissioned officer, Bennett said in a live phone interview with radio host Carrie McGinnis of WKDZ 106.5 in Clarksville, Tenn., June 11.
"When I got back from Iraq -- I was wounded in 2007 -- and I came back and I had a little more of an emotional spin on [the song]. After I healed, I did casualty affairs. I was flying to Dover, Del., actually doing notifications for families of the deceased," Bennett said. "I wrote the song along the lines of the family aspect of what the spouses see when they're waiting for us to come back home, and then what happens when they don't come back."
"Dan put a spin on it of the come-back-alive experience," Bennett said. "The version we did is a good song, it's uplifting. It'll make you understand a lot."
"I just kind-of got tired of hearing other people sing a Soldier song," Bennett said. "I wanted to hear something from a Soldier, (singing it), that is actually how we felt instead of third-hand knowledge."
McGinnis said the Soldiers' song, even if it tells a difficult story, needs to be sung.
"That's the beauty of that -- is that you can come from that place and write that and make us see it and understand it and know it. Even if it's hard to hear, that doesn't mean we don't need to hear it," McGinnis said.
"It's not Jingle Bells," Bennett said. "It touches on the American flag, wounded Soldiers, the parades."
Jens added the bridge and tweaked the final lyrics into a more positive end to the song -- that is, the Soldier comes home alive. However, Bennett said he is all too familiar with having to deliver the unwanted news that a family has lost its hero.
The support of families, which is captured in the song, is particularly vital during overseas deployment, Jens said.
"I was overseas for 15 months, and it's hard to be away from family that long," Jens said. "My wife is actually writing a book about how we dealt with that. We're just looking for a way to give back to the families."
The Soldier songwriters were among the Army talent whose stories were videotaped and shown just before it was their turn in the spotlight at the Washington Hilton Saturday.
The Army Ball main event talent lineup included Master Sgt. Marva Lewis, Fort Meade, Md. -- Army Soldier Show veteran and singer with the U.S. Army Field Band; Sgt. First Class Sean Bennett, Fort Campbell, Ky. -- Silver Star recipient, singer-songwriter nationally televised featured Soldier performer; Spc. Daniel Jens, Fort Hood, Texas -- third season of America's Got Talent semi-finalist, Blackjack Idol winner; Sgt. Vicki Golding, D.C. Army National Guard -- 257th Army Band vocalist and 2006 Military Idol Winner; 2nd Lt. Keisha Spaulding, Fort Meade -- Army Soldier Show veteran and Apollo performer; and Joyce Dodson, U.S. Army Europe -- Army veteran and 2008 Operation Rising Star winner.
Individual performances encompassed songs from a variety of genres, including "Faith and Hope" by Victor Hurtado, performed by Dodson, and "Friendship Train" by Gladys Knight and the Pips, performed by Lewis. The culmination was a medley of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "America the Beautiful," and "God Bless the U.S.A." -- a patriotic finale that brought the talent on stage together in harmony, and the Army crowd to its feet.
"Each person was brought in because of their unique gifts and their abilities," Higdon said. "The goal this year was to have a show that was more intimate and Army-focused. The best way to do that was to highlight our own talent."