WNPR

A Risky Music Gig: Playing With The Military In Battle Zones

Jan 5, 2017

Here’s something that may surprise you. The single largest U.S. employer of full-time professional musicians is the United States Armed Forces.

Musicians have been part of military heritage and tradition around the world for centuries: performing at ceremonial events, serving as cultural ambassadors, and serving in battle zones.

Two members of the Connecticut-based Eastside Ramblers Dixieland Band served as musicians in Tikrit, Iraq during the war.

Retired Army Staff Sergeant Pete Roe plays trumpet in the orchestra at Goodspeed Musicals. A busy freelance musician, he also teaches at the Hartt School Community Division and in Ridgefield.

Retired Army Staff Sergeant Melinda Burnham plays clarinet in Capitol Winds at the University of Hartford. She’s also worked as a chef and hopes to open her own gourmet jazz food truck.

When they learned they were being deployed to Iraq, both were surprised. They were initially told they'd be entirely a musical unit, but members of the band were frequently asked to perform other tasks including security details.

"I did my eight weeks of basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, which is all stuff everybody does when they first join the Army: marching, drilling ceremony, marksmanship, physical training, and so forth," said Roe. "Then, after that time, military musicians -- Army, Navy, and Marines -- go to the school of music in Little Creek, Norfolk, Virginia. There's a music school there for military musicians. And you spend six months there, and you learn how to be a military musician: marching band, concert band classes, private lessons."

Listen to the full interview:

But music was the primary reason they were there. Roe said music offered a chance to escape from the "terrible jobs" the other soldiers had to perform.

"I believe that music is very important in the military," said Burnham. "War is such a devastating thing for anyone to have to go through -- and music says a lot. It paints a lot of pictures, and everyone has their own story that they might get from that music."

As a deployed musician, the dangers were real. Burnham shared a letter she wrote back to family while in Iraq.

"We recently had two attacks where the mortars hit our FOB – Forward Operating Base," she wrote. "There were casualties, but there were no fatalities. I was extremely lucky because I was not anywhere near the impact site of either attack."

But the impact of the music could be seen.

"A soldier approached us to thank us for doing what we do and that we reminded him of home: New Orleans," wrote Burnham. "That made our day."

Tucker Ives contributed to this post.