Up to the challenge of battles, bagpipes

Commando: Known for his experience in Somalia, Matt Eversmann takes on a new mission: music.

August 06, 2005|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In a tailored suit and silk tie, he teaches the finer points of leadership to executives in corporate America. In Army camouflage, he molds young adults at the Johns Hopkins University into future combat leaders.

Master Sgt. Matt Eversmann excelled in some of the military's most grueling schools, and he led a team of commandos in the bloody battle that inspired the book and movie Black Hawk Down. A colleague described him as an "Army rock star."

So with two years remaining in his 20-year enlistment, what's left to conquer for this hard-charger who can quote Shakespeare and fillet a snake for lunch?

Did he say bagpipes?

On Thursday nights, Eversmann takes a short drive from his Towson home to a smoky American Legion hall on York Road where he learns to play this ancient instrument with the haunting sound.

His interest in the pipes is piqued by his Scottish ancestry, a passion for military history and his fondness for the music.

And, in no small part, by the challenge. Eversmann's life is filled with challenges, whether the rigors of Ranger school or surviving combat or blowing into a plaid-covered bag and creating stirring tunes.

"Challenge is woven through my life because that's where I select to be. Nothing special about that," he said.

But during his first lesson, he quickly realized playing the pipes can be a little daunting. Struggling to master the musical scale, Eversmann muttered, "I feel like a fish trying to use its feet."

Eversmann, 39, took his first lesson last month using a practice chanter, a small, mouth-blown version of the regular bagpipe chanter.

Pipe Major Fred Ptaschek of Parkville is Eversmann's instructor, and he gave his new charge a B-minus for his first effort.

"He can read music because he played the trombone as a kid. ... He just needs to practice several times a day and get the feel," Ptaschek said. "The bagpipes are the most difficult instrument to play, but there is no doubt, with Matt's motivation, that I can have him playing `Amazing Grace' in six months."

Tricky instrument

The bagpipe is complicated to play.

There is the bag, made from animal hide or Gortex, that is inflated through the second component, a blow pipe. Blowing as much as possible, a piper fills the bag and releases the air through the instrument by squeezing it with his forearm.

"Beginners have hyperventilated," Ptaschek said.

To play a melody, a piper uses the eight finger-holes of the chanter, a second pipe on the front of the bag. Drones are three pipes protruding from the top of the bag that provide the instrument's constant sound.

While the origin of the bagpipe remains open to debate, some scholars say the instrument dates to 13th-century Turkey. And the pipes have deep military significance in battle for the Scots, dating to the 1700s. Around the same time, the English declared the pipes an instrument of war because of how they stirred soldiers' fighting spirit, historians have found.

Heard today at parades, funerals and other events, fans of the bagpipe love its distinctive sound.

Others, however, don't care for it. Irish poet Oscar Wilde once defined a gentleman as "someone who knows how to play the bagpipes. But doesn't."

Military challenges

To Eversmann, challenge and leadership are parallel paths he has followed -- points he sometimes raises in his lectures.

Raised in rural Virginia, Eversmann worked in a bus factory through high school and three years at Hampden-Sydney College. That, college friend Sean Dawkins said, is where "Matt got his core values. He's a natural. People just warm up to him wherever he goes."

Eversmann scored high in the Army's Ranger, survival, and sniper schools. He has served around the world as a Ranger adviser and has co-written a book on his combat experience.

He was portrayed by Josh Hartnett in the movie Black Hawk Down, the story of the 1993 military raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, in which hundreds of enemy combatants, and 18 American commandos, were killed. Eversmann commanded a team of Army Rangers in the mission and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor.

"That's what made him such an effective leader: his high level of performance in a scenario gone bad," said Ryan McCarthy, a Chicago investment banker. The two friends met in a Ranger battalion and, even though McCarthy was an officer, he said, "Matt was my mentor, my big brother. And I believe that quality that he still carries gives him his credibility when he speaks on leadership."

When he leaves Hopkins, where he instructs ROTC students, Eversmann will be reassigned to the 10th Mountain Division in New York.

`Celebrity status'

Friends say Eversmann became famous because he personifies a creed of honor and duty -- and because of his humility.

Capt. Amy Wallace, assistant professor of military science at Johns Hopkins, jokes about Eversmann's "rock star" status because of the movie, book and his high profile on the lecture circuit.

But Wallace gained valuable insight into Eversmann's popularity and style during a field training exercise last year.

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