June 30, 2005
By Sgt. John Slosser
They’re a small group of Soldiers, each with their own specialty. They’re trained to enter small towns and large cities as an elite force. While on tour, they can be exposed to everyone from the humblest villager, to the most powerful dignitary. They are Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers with the musical mission to be the band.
The 29th Infantry Division Band has a unique job. While their primary mission is serve the same as any other Soldiers, much of their annual training schedule consists of going on tour, literally.
“The band provides a ceremonial background to many occasions, from funerals and change of commands, to receptions and community gigs,” said 1st Sgt Fred Lewis, acting band commander. “We’re in the entertainment business, esprit de corps, troop support, building pride. We go out and visit as many areas of the state as we can. We try to get out and make ourselves seen.”
Long bus rides and back to back shows give the band a busy schedule. One recent venue for the band was the graduation ceremony for the cadets of the Commonwealth ChalleNGe, an alternative education program for troubled or disadvantaged youth. The soldier musicians provided ceremonial music complete with “Pomp and Circumstance” as the cadets walked across the stage and accepted their graduation certificates. A crowd of family, friends and teachers cheered for their cadets as the packed auditorium listened to live music emanating from the orchestra pit.
“People look at us and think ‘There’s the army’ so we have to be professional in everything from our uniformity to our music,” said Spc. Kevin Pace, a trumpet player. “Besides, it’s exciting to get paid to do what I love! I wanted to serve in the military, and I wanted to play an instrument, why not mix the two?”
The band gets to see a lot of the military, and many people outside of the military get to see the band. The band members say they give a gentler spin on the National Guard, and they help to highlight the state mission of the civilian soldier. The exposure the band receives makes for an effective recruiting tool. Many members of the band admit that they joined after seeing or hearing the group and learning of the opportunity to serve as well.
“I’m a music major from Norfolk State,” said Spc. Ahsia Spencer, a clarinet player. “But I was drilling and playing music with [the 29th Infantry Division Band] before I even went to basic training. Some of my friends still don’t believe I’m in the army,” laughed Spencer
The band recently reached a milestone in keeping up their own numbers.
“We’ve got 100% strength for the first time in 30 years and I believe it’s from the exposure we get from our state tour,” Lewis said. “We play with the guys we are recruiting, We get out and rub elbows with musicians all across the state. There’s a ripple effect in the people that watch, listen and play with us. Teachers students and other members of the community are more aware of the [National Guard] because of us and they spread the word,”
Another bonus for these civilian Soldiers is their ability to support fellow troops and their mobility to go where they are needed even if that means heading overseas. The 29th Infantry Division Band flew to Bosnia in support of Operation Noble Eagle and more recently the band was called to take part in the 60th anniversary of D-Day in France.
“In Bosnia we played at orphanages and from camp to camp on USO trips. We even got to play with local bands in Tusla,” said Sgt.1st Class Karl Kleinhenz, wood wind group leader and baritone sax player.
“We even got the opportunity to go to Normandy. The band was very well received in France. Playing in all the parades and with the community bands was a great experience!”
Other members enthusiastically agreed with Kleinhenz.
“We bring a little bit of home to the troops and a little bit of the Army to the communities.” Pace said.
The groups overall pride in their mission was evident from the “top” down.
“It’s a high profile job. We’re in the spotlight. I can treat these soldiers with a degree of professionalism I can’t get many places. We support we entertain, and Hey! We’re on request!” said Lewis, who used to be a high school band director.
The Soldiers who serve with Lewis mirrored their leaders praise of the group.
“The band looks great, we’re serious but we still love to have fun.” Spencer said. “It’s rewarding because it’s a job full of instant gratification. When you play a gig and people clap and cheer, it makes you feel good.”
Kleinhenz summarized his pride in serving in the band and the respect he receives from his fellow soldiers in the National Guard.
“They see how we stand out before, during and after ceremonies, they see our quality our style and our military bearing and we get cheers.