APG soldiers sound off

The 389th Army Band has again sent members overseas to entertain U.S. troops


Music is the mission for some U.S. soldiers spending Christmas on Middle Eastern sands.

For the third consecutive year, the 389th Army Band at Aberdeen Proving Ground sent members on an overseas holiday tour. For the past several weeks, they have been performing sets of rock and country tunes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Most of the 11 musicians from APG are part of a group called Raw Materiel, a nod to the Army Materiel Command, which the 389th officially represents. Four of the traveling musicians jam in a jazz ensemble that often plays for troops.

"We try to give them that little extra push just to lift their morale and give them a taste of what it's like to be back home," Staff Sgt. Julio de Larosa, the band's drummer, said during a telephone interview Thursday from Camp Anaconda in Iraq.

But the soldier-musicians must leave behind home and family for the holidays.

"I'll be honest, it's hard," said Ronda Lindsay, whose husband is on the tour for the second year in a row. Sgt. John Lindsay, a native of Albany, Ore., is one of Raw Materiel's vocalists.

Raw Materiel's song lists don't exactly evoke images of the Bob Hope troop visits of yesteryear.

Band members said crowd favorites this year have ranged from "Sell Out" by the ska-punk band Reel Big Fish, to "Diggin' on James Brown" by the funk-soul band Tower of Power, to the Southern-fried "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

And if it's a younger crowd, the band knows that "Bodies" by Drowning Pool will be a hit, said Staff Sgt. Steve Lah, another Raw Materiel vocalist.

"Music is the love of my life. ... That's the main reason I came back into the active duty," said Lah, a native of Hibbing, Minn. "Imagine picking the hobby you love to do the most and getting paid for it."

Some of the Army's full-time musicians play in three "special bands" based at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or in Washington. Others participate in 30 general and direct support bands spread among Army posts such as APG.

Before playing with one of the latter groups, musicians complete nine weeks of basic training required of all Army recruits and then study at the Army's School of Music in Norfolk, Va. The school's commandant, Lt. Col. Thomas Palmatier, led a Middle East music tour last December and recalled the trip fondly.

"There is something special about music this time of year," he said. "And over there, it's an unbelievable experience."

Palmatier said the military musicians often play locations passed over by well-known civilian artists on their visits to troops.

"The big guns are always going to show up at the real big places," Palmatier said. "It's the Army bands that are going to go out and visit those really small forward operating bases where the soldiers are working under the tough circumstances."

The touring members of the 389th have been to some of those, said the band's commander, Chief Warrant Officer Robert Larsen.

"In fact, we went to one where they hadn't had anybody perform since July," Larsen said. "They were very enthusiastic there."

But Raw Materiel has been playing the bigger venues, too, such as Camp Anaconda, which is north of Baghdad, near Balad, and is one of the larger posts in Iraq. The USO tour was expected to show up on the heels of Raw Materiel's gig, Larsen said.

At least two of the performers on the USO tour are former soldiers. Keni Thomas, who was featured in the film Sweet Home Alabama, was an Army Ranger. And Craig Morgan, who performed the recent country hit "Redneck Yacht Club," was an Army artilleryman. One of the Army's special bands, known as Pershing's Own, also is on the USO tour.

The Aberdeen Proving Ground musicians might share a closer bond with their audiences overseas than most civilian performers. But some of them also draw distinctions.

"For me, it's an honor to come over here and play for them," de Larosa said. "What we do doesn't compare to what they do. ... But they do need that relief from the everyday war thing."

That is where the band is happy to oblige, he said.

"It's that human contact," de Larosa said. "We're onstage playing for them."

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