In the Army, TRADOC musicians at Fort Eustis are on a mission, too

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com
Military bands on mission to perform

Staff Sgt. Tiffany Woods doesn't mind firing an M-16, but her weapon of choice is the trumpet.

A newcomer to Fort Eustis, she's in the Army Training and Doctrine Command Band, a widely respected group in the world of military music. Like other soldier musicians, Woods gutted through boot camp and must adhere to physical training requirements expected of soldiers schooled in artillery or logistics, but who can't carry a tune.

She earned a master's degree from Louisiana State University as a civilian, but Army basic training taught her a few lessons, too. She learned that she loved to work out, even more so than she thought. And the soldier part of it was fine.

"It turns out I like firing an M-16," she said. "It's fun."

However, Woods was truly in her element during a recent Saturday in May, when soldiers and airmen dedicated a memorial to fallen troops. Standing in the dignified stillness of Magnolia Park and surrounded by families of the fallen, Woods put aside her trumpet for the bugle and played a solemn rendition of taps.

Like other members of the TRADOC band, she believes military musicians serve their country, too.

"We are what the public sees of the military," she said. "It's almost like we're the ambassadors."

TRADOC band members combine for about 400 performances a year. On Thursday, they kicked off their 83rd annual Music Under the Stars weekly concert series at Magnolia Park. On Friday, they played at Fort Monroe in Hampton, the inaugural performance of the fort's Music By the Bay Series.

The TRADOC band is part of a strong military music tradition in Tidewater. The Navy's U.S. Fleet Forces Band is based in Norfolk. On the Peninsula, the Air Force Heritage of American Band is at Langley Air Force Base. The units are part of the region's culture, appearing at change-of-command ceremonies and homecomings as well as public appearances.

Scrutiny coming

However, as military budgets shrink and leaders worry about training, readiness and resources for front-line troops, some lawmakers have turned a sharp eye toward the Pentagon's military music budget.

During a congressional hearing in March, Rep. Martha McSally hammered away at top Pentagon officials over the proposed mothballing of the A-10 "Warthog," an older aircraft that is still highly valued in supporting ground troops.

The Colorado Republican is a retired Air Force colonel and former A-10 pilot. She said the Air Force had given different and contradictory reasons for retiring the aircraft. The latest — lack of personnel.

"Yet last we looked, we've got hundreds of people playing the tuba and clarinet, wearing the uniform, as opposed to core military capabilities," she said. "If we really had a manning crisis, from my perspective, we would tell people to put down the tuba and pick up a wrench or a gun — but we're not at that place."

She is not alone in her concern. Last month, the House passed legislation that would require a top-to-bottom review of military bands in the Defense Department with an eye toward shifting resources to combat or support units.

"The committee believes that the services may be able to conserve end strength by reducing the number of military bands," reads the report of the House Armed Services Committee on the National Defense Authorization Act.

The Government Accountability Office is directed to perform the study and report back by February 2017. The same report directs Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to brief the Armed Services panels in the House and Senate on military bands by Dec. 1. He is charged with examining the number of military bands, the cost, the number of personnel assigned to the bands, the trend line of funding and the feasibility of combining bands at joint locations.

In fiscal year 2015, spending on military bands across the Defense Department totaled $437 million, according to Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright. That would buy the Navy seven more F/A-18 fighter jets with some money left over, for example. The $437 million was .09 percent of the total defense budget that year, Wright said.

The Army tops the list with 99 bands across the active-duty ranks, National Guard and reserves. The Navy has 11, the Marine Corps 12 and the Air Force 15.

Some cuts have already gone into effect, according to Wright. The Army dropped 600 band positions between 2010 and 2015. Total band personnel now stand at about 4,350 The Navy and Marine Corps each lost two bands and about 100 musicians over the last 10 years. The Air Force cut nine bands and more than 500 personnel during the same period.

In addition, the Army plans to cut three active-duty and four reserve bands between now and 2019, affecting another 270 personnel. One is based at Fort Lee in central Virginia.

Hours of practice

The questions about funding and policy have not cast aspersions on the talent or dedication of the musicians.

Sgt. Grant Boyd is one of three TRADOC band members with a Ph.D. His is in bassoon performance. As an undergraduate, he double majored in bassoon and cello. He put in 10 years of college before contacting an Army recruiter in 2013, having long considered the military music program as a career option.

With a resume that included a six-month stint at the Colorado symphony, Boyd entered boot camp at age 29.

"I made it through," he said with a laugh. "I hadn't really fired any weapons before joining the Army. The Army has given me the opportunity to lean things I never would have really done in the civilian world, for sure."

Like Woods, he takes his Army role seriously.

"We put a face on the Army that other occupations in the military really can't do," he said. "We are able to connect with the communities we serve through music. Music is a universal language. It's a universal way of communicating. It builds bridges between us and the community."

Another attraction of the military music program is more practical. Being a musician in the civilian world can be hit or miss. The military offers a chance for musicians to hone their craft, serve their country and provide a steady income for their families.

"I tried gigging around Baton Rouge, but that's very tough because it's so competitive," Staff Sgt. Woods said.

That's also true for Spc. Andre Badeaux, who plays the guitar.

"It's a chance to play your instrument," he said. "Coming into the Army, for me it was kind of a two-fold thing. I got to serve the country, but at the same time, you get to serve the soldiers."

Earlier in his musical career, Badeaux played the casino circuit. Then he got off the road, married and raised a family. But he kept playing, first in bars and then in church, turning to worship music.

He entered the Army at the ripe young age of 39-3/4.

"As far as going through the training, it wasn't easy," he said. "It wasn't quite as bad as I thought it was going to be."

Now he's a five-year veteran.

"We serve because we are soldiers," he said. "We are musicians in the Army, but first we're soldiers."

The Badeaux family has continued the Army tradition. His son joined the Army and is stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, where he serves in logistics.

"He thinks I have an easy job," the father said.

Rich history

The TRADOC band was given its current name in 2006, but it complex history is intertwined with a mix of previous bands that goes back to 1931. Today's unit is 54 members strong and forms nine musical performance teams. About 20 percent have earned their master's degrees while another 20 percent have no college training. Bachelor's degrees are the most common academic level.

The band is commanded by Maj. Randy Bartel, whose musical career started in the sixth grade when he was handed a trumpet.

"That's the end of the story," he said. "It wasn't more complicated than that. A lot of stories start that way."

Bartel is anecdotally correct, at least for this story: Staff Sgt. Woods, a self-described sixth-grade "rebel," rejected her parents' choice of the flute and chose trumpet because it was the loudest. Sgt. Boyd said he always "gravitated toward instruments that were bigger than me," and took up the bassoon before he was 5 feet tall.

Bartel has heard the concerns from people who pay attention to the larger Pentagon budget. To answer them, he turns to his experience as an active-duty bugler, where he's played at ceremonies where loved ones have said goodbye to a fallen veteran.

If more people attended those ceremonies, he said, "you might have a better understanding" of the role music plays in military life.

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

Want to hear the TRADOC band?

The 83rd annual season of "Music Under The Stars" kicked off Thursday at Fort Eustis. If you missed it, don't worry. The TRADOC band performs every Thursday at 7 p.m. through August at Fort Eustis. Concerts are held at Magnolia Park by the James River. More information about the band can be found on its website: tradoc.army.mil/band.

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