January 28, 2008

Virginia National Guard Soldiers produce praise, worship at Camp Patriot

Members of the “Praise in PTs” band play a Christmas concert at the Camp Patriot Chapel. Band members are, from left, 1st Lt. David MacFarlan, Pfc. Kurt L. Martin, Sgt. Aaron Stewart, Chief Petty Officer Billy Carver, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Collins and Pfc. Joshua D. Cook. (Photo by Spc. Jason C. Kemp)

By 1st Lt. David MacFarlan
3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment

CAMP PATRIOT, Kuwait – While the Soldiers of Company D, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, Virginia National Guard, were melting wearing their body armor in the 110-degree heat at Camp Shelby, Miss., this summer, one of the running jokes within the headquarters section was the creation of a unit band.

It was largely born from Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Collins who had noticed a latent musical talent in the members of the company and campaigned for the creation of a rock/folk/garage band.

“I thought that this would be a good stress-relief tool while still being able to worship God,” Collins said.

He made rounds among the men between training exercises, identifying those who could play instruments or had strong vocals, and slotted them into the nameless, imaginary organization that few really thought might come to pass.

Looking back on those early weeks Collins said, “When the idea first came, I wasn’t too sure I was going to be able to find fellow musicians who shared the passion. But as I talked with more and more Soldiers who shared a love for God, I was convinced this would be a success.”

A few weeks later, the Soldiers arrived in Kuwait. Collins was busy supporting various special projects with his job at the Seaport of Debarkation, but also developed a relationship over e-mail with Jeff Bader, whose spouse is the founder of Soldier’s Angels (www.soldiersangels.org).

Bader’s passion for music, guitars and the equipment needed to make it happen resonated with Collins’ vision for a band.

“Jeff was very supportive from the get-go,” Collins said. “He asked me to put together a list of things I would need. I didn’t believe that we would it all. A short time later, he sent me an e-mail saying what he was able to get, and it was even more than I thought we needed.”

Soon, thousands of dollars of musical equipment was flooding into the small company mail tent. The unit already had the talent, and Soldier’s Angels had now supplied the means. Collins said he figured it was about time to make things happen.

The band’s first practice consisted primarily of ’80s guitar-riff tangents, a favorite drum rhythm, someone belting vocals, and a few shouts of “how about this one?!”

The band had drawn upon the talent pool available within the company, and while it was significant, it did not always “mesh” together well. There was the southern rock vocalist, the worship rhythm guitarist, the garage-band drummer, the popped-collar bassist, and the leader of the pack – Collins relentlessly dreaming up a better “rocked out” version of a song they could perform. It was a cacophony of sound, and the Company D command cell located only a tent away, cringed at the rough-around-the-edges style filtering in from next door.

In a minor outburst of barely-contained creative angst, the band elected to call themselves “Praise in PTs,” an attempted jab toward the command’s policy of no civilian clothes – all tongue-in-cheek of course.

With a name, some raw talent, some new gear and a practice under the belt, Collins said he was surprised to hear the Battalion Chaplain (Capt.) Mark A. Tinsley had signed the band up for a Christmas concert.

With only a few weeks to prepare, Collins said he worried they might not be ready, but Tinsley seemed confident.

“You’ll be fine,” he remarked to Collins.

Collins focused the band, and with a lot of practice, the songs filtering into the command tent from next door sounded a little more put together. By mid-December, Collins headed a praise and worship band comprised of five other Soldiers and Sailors of Company D: 1st Lt. David MacFarlan, Chief Petty Officer Billy Carver, Sgt. Aaron Stewart, Pfc. Joshua D. Cook and Pfc. Kurt L. Martin.

"He took a group of individual personalities and, within a couple of weeks, made them one," Tinsley said.

The concert was held at the Camp Patriot chapel. Tinsley introduced “Praise in PTs” to a packed house of roughly 60 Soldiers and Sailors from various commands that came to join in worship or enjoy the performance in the small double-wide trailer. The set list included only one traditional Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” but Sgt. Aaron Stewart was quick to point out that worship was a critical aspect of the Christmas season and the crowd joined in on a few of the contemporary worship songs.

"The experience was tremendously uplifting for all those in attendance,” said Tinsley. “’Praise in PTs’ rocked our hearts as well as the house.

“For about an hour, everyone in the building forgot that they were away from their homes and families. For a brief moment in time, reality was suspended, and ‘Praise in PTs’ motivated us to focus on the true meaning of Christmas."

“When they played their first song, they really hit their groove,” said Capt. Jim Tierney, the Company D commander. “Everybody in the chapel, whether or not you are a fan of Christian rock, enjoyed the performance. You could see their [band members’] confidence develop with each song they played. I'm extremely proud of them.”

The concert lasted 45 minutes and the support was overwhelming. For many attendees, the concert was a little slice of Church at home. For others, it was a reminder of the church body gathered together to celebrate the birth of a Savior not far from where it all began. For a few, it was simple entertainment on a chilly night in the desert near the sea, far from home.

The band is still together and practicing.

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