In early 2003, my senior year of high school, I got a call from an Army recruiter. One thing led to another and by the middle of March, I had signed a 5 year contract with the Army. If you had suggested such a career choice for me to anyone who knew me, there would have been much laughter. I was categorically against war and anything that involved killing people. Even if I wasn’t going to be pulling the trigger, I would not be easy working for a company that actively sought the death of human beings. Mine was a household bereft of guns, even toy guns as facsimiles were just as damning to my mother’s sensibilities. To this day, the thought of a gun in my house, however it is secured, feels like something sharp in my boot that I’m hoping is just a rock (but what if it isn’t?).
So how, pray tell, did an utter stranger convince me in a matter of moments to abandon all those hard-fought scruples? College money. And he mentioned the Army Band. Which I didn’t think I was good enough for. After a week and a half of practice and a 7-hr drive to Ft Leonardwood to meet the band liaison for an audition, I was in the Army Band (by the skin of my teeth). The bandsmen who sat my audition made it clear that I needed to practice a lot, that it was really a lack of French Horn players in the field that made them take the risk for me, and that the School of Music would ultimately determine my fate.
It didn’t occur to me, when I first started this process (taking a practice ASVAB, prepping for the audition, etc), that I would be going to Basic Training. And like every person who talked to me about my decision, from parents I babysat for to retired Airmen who went to church with my parents to my high school friends, I was certain that the Band wouldn’t deploy. What would I do? Blow my horn at the enemy? Absurd.
I went to Basic at Ft Jackson (Relaxin’ Jackson) in South Carolina. In August. I climbed Victory Tower, which you can see in the movie Renaissance Man, though my dismount from the 30 ft tower was significantly more graceful than Danny DeVito’s (thank you, dance camp). I learned to fire an M16 from a foxhole and in the prone unsupported position. I learned to do push-ups and sit-ups and finish a 2-mile run in less than 19 minutes. I threw a live grenade after the practice grenade course. I learned the Army Song and the Army Values (which were conveniently listed on a plastic tag next to my ID tags). I learned that a 5′ nothing Drill Sergeant could be more intimidating than the 6′ stocky DS who dropped an F-bomb every other word. I learned that you could show attitude by how you walked. I learned never, ever ask a DS not to call you a name because it hurts your feelings. I learned that for a brief moment, everyone in Basic Training wants to be a Drill Sergeant.
I learned paranoia. I learned sharp corners. I learned Hooah.
When they found out I was in the band, people laughed. My French horn mouthpiece was almost confiscated as contraband, along with nail files, candy, and scissors. A friend argued for me to get it back because I was too upset to speak for myself. I needed it to practice. You can’t not play for 2 months and then do an audition. My DS made me play Happy Birthday outside of his office on my mouthpiece. I think he wanted to embarrass me, but I’m a narcissist so I loved it.
Some people insisted on calling me Flute Player or Flute Blower. Thanks to American Pie, I heard the phrase “One time at Band Camp” quite a lot.
I graduated Basic with a fair PT score and a Marksman Badge.
The School of Music is a multi-service school situated on the Little Creek Naval Amphibian Base. It serves the Army, Navy, and Marines. When I went, the regular course was 6 months, at the end of which I would be promoted to a Specialist (E-4). I started in the Army as a Private First Class (E-3) because of my “civilian acquired skill,” the 8 years I had spent learning to play my instrument.
I took classes in music theory and ear training. I spent 4 hours a day practicing, or trying to practice. I had weekly lessons with a senior NCO. I played in concert band. I marched in Drill Band. I got up for PT every morning at 4:30. I took a PT test every month. There was Army training scattered throughout the course, taught by NCO’s going through their leadership courses. I found out that the Marine and Navy Bands don’t deploy, but that the Army Bands do. I learned that Hawaii was deploying right after I was set to get there.
I also learned that the 12-mile ruck march I did in Basic Training gave me stress fractures in my hips that I had been walking and running on for over a month because I was too afraid of missing training. It took two weeks to get a no-running profile so I could stop running and heal.
I went home for the first time since August and found out I was a different person.
I took three auditions at the SOM. I passed them all, barely. In April, I went home again. Then I flew out to Hawaii and became part of the real Army.
I didn’t go on the first deployment. The Commanding General for the Division wanted the band to only be doing its primary mission of music support for the troops, so he authorized 2 3-month TDYs for a portion of the band. They flew all over Afghanistan providing morale and entertainment. I wanted to go when they went back for Christmas. The guys they sent all had families. It didn’t seem fair.
I got my chance for the second deployment. The new CG didn’t want to leave his band behind.
Between the first and second deployment, we were attached to the Special Troops Battalion, rather than being directly under the CG. The first thing the STB did was accuse us of cheating on the PT test because there was no way the band had the highest average in the Division (274 out of 300). They made us retake the PT test with another unit grading us on the 1/2-mile track (the worst running track on Post). Our score dropped 4 points.
I stood through dozens of Change of Command ceremonies. In every single one, someone would thank the band “for bringing something special.”
I met soldiers who didn’t know there was an Army Band. One actually told me he thought the band was civilians dressed up in uniforms.
I had to repeatedly justify my rank to people outside the band because they didn’t think I’d earned it.
I was a freak novelty. And I had coins from Generals lining my shelves, as thanks for playing a reception or a graduation on the Big Island.
I deployed to Iraq in September 2006. The band had two missions: music and security. This was despite the guidance that had come down years before that the band only had one mission. I did Close Quarters Marksmanship training 3 times in Kuwait, in 140 degree weather. I drove for the Live Fire Convoy Exercise. I was stuck in a tent with 75 other females for two weeks with an air conditioner that only brought the temp down to 100 and frequently caused power outages.
When we got to Iraq, we manned the security desk at the Battle Defense Operation Center. We supervised Local Nationals on clean-up missions on post. We sent junior soldiers to paint helicopter pads and change street signs to reflect the change from the 101st Airborne to the 25th Infantry Division. We provided a 4-soldier team for the Security Detachment every week. I was the driver for my team. The Security Detachment was a small platoon made up of all the failures of the STB. Our job was to drive around the inner perimeter and check that no one was sleeping in the Observation points and that the generators had gas. My Truck Commander played the euphonium. My gunner was a tuba player. And the back was occupied by one of my trumpet players, whichever one wasn’t playing Taps somewhere else in country. We had a week with SD or the BDOC desk, then a week of music. We mostly played in the chow halls, in front of the coffee house of the BDOC, and in the bazaar on COB. We couldn’t travel to any other posts because we couldn’t get transportation. Plus, what if we couldn’t get transport back? We’d miss duty for the next week.
One of our NCOs, a trombone player, ended up taking over as SD Platoon Sergeant because the first two guys in the job were both fired for incompetence. One of our teams helped to take in a guy who had made the mistake of firing an RPG at Speicher and not hiding well enough from the helicopters that went after him. I sat watching the main road at night a few times, which was excessively boring because curfew meant no one was on the road. I did a couple of convoys, though I didn’t drive for either. We played Christmas carols for one trip, to the heckling from the STB 1SG and senior officers.
Another of our NCOs, a euphonium player who was a prior service Reserves officer, took over as commander of the night shift for the BDOC.
Midway through deployment, they shifted us from SD to the balloon tasking. We provided a six-man team to babysit the balloon for the night shift. I volunteered for this team. I am a night person and anything was better than sitting the BDOC desk. Besides, it meant I had a regular schedule. Every other week, anyway. I got to switch from day shift to night shift every Monday, but much can be excused for Midnight chow.
Gradually, it felt like people were getting sick of us. Of me. Every week, there was a Brass Quintet playing in the chow hall. The Rock Band did a show every week. We still had people clap or thank us. We also had others who asked us to keep it down. But what did they expect? We should have been travelling all over the place to offer music support for the entire northern province. But that just wasn’t happening. Not until the end. I got to do two trips, one to Mosul and one to Balad. These are areas controlled by DAESH now, in case you were wondering. This was after we had found out that the deployment had been extended by 3 months, which was right after I reenlisted for 4 years so I wouldn’t get sucked into the next deployment.
I was lucky. I didn’t see any “action.” No more or less than any other non-Combat Arms soldier.
It’s a strange thing, being in the band. Generals give you coins while the 1SG smirks at you behind their backs. The BN XO recommends you to take a difficult tasking because the band always does an outstanding job, yet the rest of the command team looks at you in disdain because you aren’t real soldiers.
I left Hawaii angry. Ft Rucker, AL only made it worse. I was put into the Supply shop and assigned a Government Purchase Card. In case you didn’t know, the Band staffs all its admin, supply, operations, and training offices. They don’t just sit around playing music all day. And the higher up you go in rank, the less music you tend to do. Rucker was non-deployable. It’s the Home of Army Aviation, so we played 6 Change of Commands a year and 1-2 graduations a week. Very low op-tempo, but with huge access to the entire Southeast. We should have been playing all over the south. Ft Benning, 2 hrs north, was way too busy with Basic grads (though not too busy to do a TDY down to Disney World, which I was lucky enough to get in on). But Rucker was ideally placed for Panama City, New Orleans, Mobile, and everywhere in between. We should have been playing for high schools to up recruiting and doing parades and patriotic concerts until our legs fell off.
We weren’t. We played ceremonies: graduations, parades, change of commands, etc. And we’d send a pianist to play the reception for the WOC grads. Why? Because some civilian in charge of approving our travel funds decided the Army shouldn’t be spending money so the band can party. Because a 6 hour parade is definitely a party, especially if its Mardi Gras. (Have you ever done a 6 hour parade? Is there a better analogy for Hell?)
When my contract was up, I got out. I quit. Because there is only so much Sousa a girl can take. I haven’t played my horn since 2011. And when fellow musicians look at me shocked and ask why, I have a simple answer. The Army killed the music in me. They all know exactly what I mean.
If you’ve kept with me so far, congrats. I’m finally to my point.
A few weeks ago, Rep McSally got a bill passed for the Defense Appropriations Fund in the House. It included language that limited the band’s mission to ceremonies and funerals. To somehow save money. Which means no parades, no patriotic concerts, no holiday concerts, no receptions for diplomats and officers, and no school recruitment.
There have been quite a few articles about this. $437 million is a number thrown around quite a bit as the budget for military bands last year, which is less than .01% of the total Defense Budget. Also noted are $11,000 flutes and $12,000 tubas. I worked in Supply. Wanna hear a few more numbers? $40,000 grand piano. $50,000+ in sound equipment. $25,000/yr salary for E-5 horn player.
Forget that good instruments are expensive but will last for decades if properly cared for. And that sometimes it takes years to replace instruments that are falling apart because of contractors.
Forget that our budget lives under threat every year, which discourages fiscal responsibility. For example, we haven’t spent our budget for the year, but if we don’t spend it, then next year we’re given a smaller budget and what if we need it for something? It’s not like extra money rolls over to the next FY like unused minutes on a fancy phone plan. It just disappears into the ether. Oh, looks like the band didn’t spend its budget this year. We were going to give them $120,000 for the year, but they can probably squeak by on $80,000, don’t you think?
I’m not saying its right. That’s just how it was.
McSally stated that she didn’t feel right about military musicians playing at a Christmas party she went to. I agree with her. They should have been at home with their families celebrating the holidays. They don’t get extra pay for that, no over time. They might get a coin. They might get a thank you. They might get nothing, not even dinner. But that’s the job. Bandsmen don’t get holidays off.
If you don’t want military bands playing for those types of events, tell military officers and government officials to stop requesting the free band and start spending their money on civilian bands, who will charge 3 times as much as it costs for a military band. Or more.
She said there were certainly civilian bands eager to take the place of military bands on non-essential events. I wonder who she thinks will be paying for those civilians? Not to mention the insurance nightmare it is to get a celebrity personality into combat zones. What happens when you send Taylor Swift to Iraq for a non-essential concert for deployed soldiers and her transport gets shot at? I don’t suppose she went to Basic Training and had lots of pre-deployment training and has her own weapon strapped to her back so she can shoot back. But perhaps the soldiers who are deployed in dangerous areas dying for their country don’t really need any kind of distraction from the day to day BS, right? That would explain why soldiers were so bummed to see my little brass quintet when we finally got to travel. Except they weren’t bummed. They were pretty excited.
She said “put down the tuba and pick up a wrench or gun.”
I don’t know if you can tell, but there are a lot of weapons in the above pictures. The tuba player has a M249 under his seat. Even Christmas caroling required carrying a weapon. Because you don’t walk around without one when you’re deployed. And yes, that’s a table saw, not a wrench, but someone had to build my bookshelf. The term she’s missing is Soldier-Musician. That means we can do both.
McSally seems to think she can solve manning problems by reducing bandsmen since they would miraculously transform into aircraft mechanics or infantrymen. If I hadn’t passed my audition, I would not have joined. If the Army didn’t offer a regular paycheck for musicians, something rare in the music industry, a lot of people would simply go elsewhere. You don’t gain personnel by cutting bands. That’s not how it works. And restricting bands to ceremonial capacities will make it even harder to staff the bands you do have. Who wants to play marches all the time? Crazy people, that’s who.
Which brings me to the most poisonous thing she said. She mentioned that some veterans aren’t getting buglers at their funerals. This seems a counterintuitive point after just stating that bandsmen need to do real jobs (gun/wrench jobs) until you read into it. Reduce the band budget, cut back on bands, reduce the number of bandsmen, but you still need to send buglers to every funeral. Her comments on that point, coming on the heels of her distaste for military musicians playing concerts and receptions, is an insinuation that the Band refuses to pay final respects to veterans in favor of playing rock band concerts. Because failure to provide a bugler couldn’t be a budget issue. We don’t have the money to send a bugler there and the band that was near enough to go is closed now. We don’t have the personnel because new people aren’t joining the band because people like you are telling the world how worthless we are. My husband is a bugler. He’s played a lot of funerals. It is an honor and a privilege. How dare you.
The fact is, I’m tired of this fight. The band spends all its time defending itself. Trust me, you need us. You’ll miss us when we’re gone. Teetering between senior officials saying that we are the finest the Army has to offer and everyone else thinking we’re some kind of joke. I quit so I wouldn’t have to fight any more.
I don’t think McSally went far enough. I think we should scrub the band completely. You want ceremonial music? Plug in an iPod to those speakers. You want a bugler for this funeral? Here’s a trumpet that plays it when you press a button.
And then all my friends could play the ceremonies and concerts and recruiting tours as civilians. They could wear what they want and play what they want. They could turn down crappy jobs and decide how long they wanted to stay overseas. They could decide where they wanted to live and could stop working so hard to prove that YES, GOD DAMN IT, I AM A REAL SOLDIER. And like all civilians contractors, they could be paid a mint to do it. Because you can make a soldier do anything, from stirring sh*t to babysitting balloons. But you can’t do that to a civilian because they can quit any time they want.
This slow death is painful. Cutting positions, killing bands. I agree that the fat needs to be trimmed. We don’t need quite so many special bands in DC and places like Rucker are dead weight. But pressure like this from idiots who don’t have any say on how the DoD spends its money is why my husband’s band is apparently getting shut down and moved. Despite the fact that it is beloved by the community and the Army spent a ton of money building facilities specifically for the band (a concert stage for the hugely popular summer concert series and a new band hall which would be an awkward fit for any other unit). Speaking of wasting money.
How are we supposed to prepare for anything if they keep pulling the rug?
I was a good soldier. I took care of my soldiers. I did my job to the best of my ability. I did everything other soldiers did, only better because I had to prove myself. I put up with snickers and slurs, incredulous looks, stupid questions, and daily reminders that nothing I did would ever be good enough. I still have all the parts memorized to Stars and Stripes Forever. I’ve been out of the band for 5 years. When people ask if I miss it, I can honestly say I miss the paycheck and the power.
I don’t miss 4 PT tests a year or going to the range. I don’t miss ruck marches and unit runs. I don’t miss waking up for a surprise piss test or administering those tests. I don’t miss the BS. I don’t miss being underappreciated. I don’t miss working weekends and holidays. I don’t miss standing in the blazing sun while some General talks for 10 minutes about how much he appreciates his daughter’s 2nd grade teacher. The stuff I do miss is all the stuff that woman thinks is unnecessary. Granted, she thinks a decades-old plane that should have been retired back in the 90s is vital to the mission. But she also thinks cutting a few million dollars will make any effing difference. She can go to her constituents and say that she’s tough on spending and has saved jobs by keeping money-pit bases open (the relocation of which might save billions, but whatever).
I would miss seeing the band play. And I think you would, too.
Here’s some links to petitions and other articles:
If you have any experiences with military bands, I hope you’ll share them. And sign petitions. And write your senators.
I realize there are bigger issues right now. If I get started on them, I won’t be able to sleep. Maybe tomorrow. Until then, let’s stop this stupidity. These are the same kind of ideas that justify spending millions on high school football while cutting all funding for the arts. Haven’t we lost enough of our souls?