You'd think things must be going pretty well over there when the National Guard band gets dispatched to Iraq.
But this is a band of soldiers first and musicians second.
The 34th Infantry Division "Red Bull" band, 45 members strong, is being deployed on Tuesday for what will be a one-year tour in southern Iraq. The band recently won a prestigious international award recognizing military concert bands, and its mission involves more than just Sousa and taps in the desert.
The soldier musicians include a country-western group, a saxophone quintet and two rock/pop bands, among other ensembles. The smaller units will fan out to remote and volatile outposts not often visited by civilian entertainers, playing everything from Stravinsky to Springsteen.
As tensions ease in Iraq, the band will in part serve a diplomatic purpose. But military bands have been deployed to every war zone in American history. Up to five Army bands have been stationed in Iraq at any given time since the invasion.
Their instruments must fit into the cargo bay of a Blackhawk helicopter. Trumpet players all carry pistols.
What makes them different is that music is their mission.
"We have to play for our audience. That's why we have the rock bands, the country band," said Chief Warrant Officer Trygve Skaar, bandmaster. "So we'll be able to give our soldiers a slice of home and be able to meet their needs. Troop morale is a very important part of our mission. We also want to make sure they come back to hear us."
First deployment for many
It will be the first deployment for many of the band members. Sgt. Craig Brenden teaches music at Waseca Junior High School, and this is his first deployment in more than 28 years in the Guard. He plays the trumpet and French horn as well as guitar in the country band, the Red Bull Riders.
His students have done their part. At one point, before the deployment was made public, he told them it was likely he would be leaving for Iraq and asked them to keep the information to themselves. To his knowledge, not one student in the band room broke the pledge.
"Somebody has been a part of what you're doing on a daily basis, and all of a sudden in the middle of the year you leave. It's as traumatic for them as it is for all of our families," he said. "Who would have thought that in the twilight of my career I'd be doing this?"
Specialist Andrea Miller, a tuba player, knew that being deployed could be a possibility. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she talked to a recruiter in high school and auditioned for the band. Later, with the encouragement of Skaar, she attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire because of its tuba program.
Her enlistment will expire while she's in Iraq, and she will reenlist while deployed. She plans a career as an Army musician.
"I want to go to Iraq and support the troops. I signed on the dotted line. I'm going. I'm so excited," she said.
Others seem less sure. Specialist Jon Krentz, 18, a guitarist in the rock band the Red Devils, was encouraged to join the Guard right out of high school to get money for college. He was told there was only the vaguest possibility the band would be sent to war. Now he is preparing for the deployment.
Last week Krentz was completing the combat lifesaver course at Camp Ripley, which ends with an unnervingly realistic simulation in which a mortar attack injures a group of Humvee mechanics, complete with amputated limbs, blood and tourniquets.
"You hear these things and it's a little freaky; it definitely makes you pay attention to the stuff they're trying to teach you," Krentz said. "If you told me I would be doing this a year ago, I would not have believed you at all."
'I don't know if I'm scared'
Some members are leaving accomplished musical careers behind. Staff Sgt. Josh Christianson, a drummer and singer with the Red Devils, has played with artists such as Rick Todd, Robby Vee, Jesse Lang and the Johnny Holm Band. There is a role for music in the military, he said, and it's not incongruous to combine the Army and rock music.
"If somebody wants to be a Ranger and be real hard core and eat bugs and live out in the forest, they can do that. And somebody who wants to be in the band, we've got a spot for them, too," he said. "People ask me if I'm scared, and I don't know if I'm scared. I don't know enough about it to be scared, yet. I just know I'm going over, and being scared won't help any. I just got to go."
Besides its main troop-morale mission, the band will also attempt to bridge the cultural gap between Americans and Iraqis by playing alongside local musicians in ceremonies for such things as graduating Iraqi police academies.
"I'm looking forward to getting a training opportunity to sit down and play music together because that's where music is the universal language," bandmaster Skaar said. "Making that connection through sharing our expertise would be literally life-changing. Hopefully for them and certainly for us."
Rest assured, however, the country band will still belt out Toby Keith's always popular "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue," the one with the lyrics: "And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass. It's the American way."
Said the country band's Brenden: "We'll get a little bit crazy."
He paused: "Well, within reason."
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636