By Tech. Sgt. Jon LaDue, 115th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published May 19, 2009
VOLK FIELD, Wis. -- Collectively they are armed with everything from bass guitars and drum sticks to keyboards and microphones. They are Airmen ... better yet, they are rock-band Airmen.
Their mission is to inspire, motivate and raise morale through music. They play the same popular rock, pop and country music heard on the radio today. Now, they are not only capable musicians, but capable warriors as well.
Three Air National Guard Bands, totaling 30 Airmen, received pre-deployment training April 14 through 18 at Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center, Wis., in preparation for a deployment in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.
"These guys have little or no training ... they play instruments on the weekends. But now they're deploying overseas and traveling in convoys. We're giving them the training they need to be able to deploy with confidence in their own skills as well as the skills of their wingmen," said Capt. Mickey Kirshenbaum, a mobility trainer for the bands at Volk.
The first band will travel overseas the beginning of June to become part of the Air Force's Expeditionary Band in Central Command in an effort to provide relief to a strained active duty Air Force Band program. Each of the three ANG bands will serve a 30 day rotation overseas. The primary mission of the ANG Band is to raise morale in places where other morale-tour organizations like the United Services Organization (USO) and Armed Forces Entertainment may not always be able to go.
The three bands are: the Band of the Northwest, from Washington; The Band of the Great Lakes, from Ohio; and The Band of the West Coast, from California.
In the past few years, big-name artists like Toby Keith, Aerosmith, Drowning Pool and Carrie Underwood have volunteered to tour overseas. These tours, however, usually only go to installations that are relatively safe and can provide a large crowd, leaving many servicemembers at forward operating bases and smaller installations left out.
"We go to the most remote and dangerous locations where we have American forces. Our job is to bring a little bit of home to our warriors overseas," said Air National Guard Band Command Chief Master Sgt. Roger Chief Mason.
The bands also have humanitarian objectives and are tasked with playing in remote villages and at foreign dignitary events to boost morale, bolster U.S. military and foreign community relationships, and promote the U.S. Armed Forces in general.
"It can be an isolated Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan or a remote village in Somalia. We're not dropping bombs, we're going out and changing people's opinions about our country," said Chief Mason. "We like to call ourselves a non-kinetic weapon system. We bring the bond of friendship through music."
The commander of Air National Guard bands couldn't agree more.
"ANG bands are helping to create a positive impression of the United States by performing in communities for people who have perhaps never met an American before, or whose only impressions of America and Americans are from movies and the media," said Col. Patrick Jones, chief of Air National Guard Bands.
The bands have traveled "outside the wire" numerous times during their deployments. Since their morale mission began in 2006, they have visited at least 12 countries. They often travel by way of vehicle convoy. Although the band members are always escorted by trained U.S. servicemembers, typically either a soldier or Marine, they themselves hadn't previously received adequate pre-deployment training. In fact, until last year, they hadn't seen a real Humvee in person prior to deployment. Instead, they had done all their Humvee and convoy training through an online training module.
The five day training the band members received at Volk was designed specifically for them and their unique deployed mission. The training was vigorous in that their days began at 6 a.m. and ran through 9 p.m. Each day, the members awoke for breakfast and then went straight into training. When finished with their training at about 5 p.m., each band set up for a practice concert at the all-ranks club.
Col. Jones is very impressed with the training at Volk CRTC. "The training our bandsmen receive at Volk Field CRTC is tailored to their needs. Bands spend a lot of time in transit and they need to know convoy operations and how to respond in a contingency while in transit. There is no place else in the Air Force where they can receive this training."
"My goal is that they never have to use this training, but, we want them to be prepared in case something does go wrong. Not only will they be able to save their own lives, but the lives of other servicemembers as well," said Lt. Col. Eugene Essex, Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center.
While at Volk, they enhanced their Ability to Survive and Operate skills, Combat Buddy Care skills, field navigation, convoy operations, urban warfare and tactical M-9 skills. At the end of their training, they combined all of their skills into a two-mile convoy in which they had to deal with various scenarios, including an ambush at a village where they were to play a concert for locals.
"A lot of people, because they are "band personnel", don't really look at them as warriors. Our focus was to bring them here and teach them some techniques and skills. These Airmen are going into harms way and they should get the best training possible ... much like any other service member," said Senior Master Sgt. Joe Bomar, ANG Band mobility trainer from the 153rd Airlift Wing.
Much like they find austere and sometime dangerous locations to play, they are also spontaneous in the way they play. It is not out of the ordinary for the ANG band members to just pick up their equipment, set up next to some servicemembers eating or standing in a long line and play an acoustic lunch-time concert. Chief Mason says these unexpected stops are sometimes the most beneficial.
"The first feedback is surprise," says Chief Mason. "When you go to these places, these servicemembers have iPods, DVD players, etc., but after a while, it's nice for them to see a fresh face."
During one of the ANG Band deployments, a critical-care patient was in surgery when the surgeon requested the band come sing outside the operating room. Four members of the band stood outside the operation room and sang a cappella for the patient inside.
Every member of the band must be willing and able to sing four a cappella songs from memory on a moment's notice. The appreciation they get from these random performances is heartfelt and is one of the reasons they continue to do what they do, the chief said.
Having received this training, many members said they felt more confident and secure about deploying overseas, which will allow them to focus on that next Metallica guitar solo or Kelly Clarkson-like high note, and share them with service members overseas.
"They came in here as band members, and yes, they play music. But, they wear the uniform and they are Airmen. They are outstanding individuals and I would be happy to deploy with these folks anywhere," said Colonel Essex.