washingtonpost.com
Vast number of military bands may not be music to Gates's ears

By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; A13

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates frequently makes the point that Congress funds Defense Department personnel far more easily than it does State Department employees.

"There are about 6,000 FSOs," or Foreign Service officers, he told an audience in San Francisco this month. He drew laughter when he added that former secretary of state "Condi Rice used to say, 'We have more people in military bands than they have in the Foreign Service.' She was not far wrong."

Well, maybe Gates should take a closer look at those military bands during his campaign to trim defense spending. My interest was triggered by a new field manual for Army bands, released last month, that Steven Aftergood first noted on his Secrecy News Web site.

You may be aware of the Army Band, known as "Pershing's Own" -- based in the Washington area -- which, according to the manual, is authorized to have 250 officers and enlisted men. Then there is the Army's Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, West Point's Military Academy Band, and the Army Field Band, located at nearby Fort Meade, Md. These are known as the Army's "special bands."

But there are also three large Army bands: the Army Training and Doctrine Command Band, at Fort Monroe, Va.; the Army Ground Forces Band, at Fort McPherson, Ga.; and the U.S. Army Europe Band and Chorus, stationed at Heidelberg, Germany.

In addition, there are 28 other regular Army bands in this country and abroad, 18 Army Reserve bands and 53 Army National Guard bands. Beyond that, almost every regular Army band has "music performance teams" (or MPTs) that can be "employed separately from the band headquarters in support of specific musical missions," according to the manual. The Army Band, for example, has a ceremonial trumpet group, the Herald Trumpets; the Army Chorus; the Army Blues, a large, popular music group; a smaller pop group, Downrange; and a string element, the Army Strings.

Other bands also have smaller groups.

The purpose of Army bands, and others run by all the military services, as described in the field manual, is to "provide music throughout the entire spectrum of operations to instill in our forces the will to fight and win, foster the support of our citizens, and promote America's interests at home and abroad."

Solid and reasonable aims, but how many do we need to accomplish those missions, because, of course, the Navy, Marines and Air Force cannot be outdone by the Army?

The Washington-based Navy Band, with 105 members and a 24-person support staff, has eight chamber music ensembles, plus the Commodores, a 19-person jazz ensemble; the Sea Chanters, a chorus of 23; the seven-person country bluegrass group Country Current; and a pop entertainment ensemble, the Cruisers, with two vocalists and six instrumentalists.

In addition, there are two Navy bands in Japan and Italy, one in Hawaii and eight across the U.S. mainland. For example, there is the Navy Band New Orleans, which has not only a ceremonial/marching unit but also the Express (top 40/variety); Navy Showband South (show/dance); and the Crescent City Brass Quintet Brass Band (traditional New Orleans), according to its Web site.

Located in Washington, the Air Force Band has 180 musicians along with it own "staff of music arrangers, composers and copyists who create many of the works performed by the band," according to its Web site. It, too, has a number of ensembles, including the Singing Sergeants and its newest group, Max Impact, "four of the Air Force's most dynamic vocalists and supported by a hard-hitting five-piece rhythm section," its Web site says.

The Air Force Academy Band has a marching band of 60; a concert band of 45; the Falconairs, an 18-member jazz ensemble; the eight-member Blue Steel pop/rock/country group; the five-man Wild Blue Country group; and five other subgroups.

In addition, there are 11 other active-duty Air Force bands, plus 11 Air National Guard bands. Nine active-duty Air Force bands tour in their own geographic areas in the continental United States while one is in Europe and another -- the USAF Band of the Pacific -- is stationed in Alaska, with elements in Japan and Hawaii.

The Marine Corps Band has about 160 members. Its ensembles include a Marine Chamber Orchestra, the Marine Jazz Orchestra and its country music group, Free Country.

Pay and benefits are worth noting, particularly in comparison with the Foreign Service. A beginning Foreign Service officer can expect pay in the $45,000-to- $50,000 range. Becoming a member of the military's "special bands" -- which beyond the four Army bands include the Navy Band, the Naval Academy Band, the Air Force Band, its Academy Band and the Marine Band ("The President's Own") -- gets you a ranking of staff sergeant or the equivalent and an annual salary of $51,000 for single people and $58,000 for married ones. The Coast Guard Band provides a ranking but slightly lower pay.

Then there is the assignment. Take the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, for example. All members over their four-year enlistment period have "a stabilized assignment at Fort Myer, and enjoy full military benefits including medical and dental care, group life insurance coverage, 30 days of annual paid vacation, Post Exchange and Commissary benefits, and educational benefits," according to its Web site.

In the Navy bands, as their Web site notes, "Your full time job will be to play your instrument, but as you advance in rank you may be assigned with a collateral duty to help manage daily operations of the band."

The opposition Gates has received for his budget plans so far probably would intensify were he to go after military bands.

For example, a question was posed on the Naval Institute Web site: "With a budget squeeze looming . . . is it time to shrink the Navy Chaplain Corps?"

One answer: "Had you been in the Navy you'd know that the personnel program of choice, when one is tilting windmills, is the Navy Band . . . not the Chaplain Corps."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company