Defense Department spends $500 million to strike up the bands

By Walter Pincus
Monday, September 6, 2010; 10:39 PM

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, when discussing his plans to cut back overhead and excessive spending in the military, often makes the comparison that the number of people in military bands is larger than the number of State Department Foreign Service officers. He never indicated that the bands were heading for the budget chopping block, but when I wrote about them two weeks ago the defensive response was so great that I decided to take a second look at their cost.

The Marine Corps provided the only solid number. It spent $50 million last year on its military bands, including $10 million to support the 130 elite musicians in the Washington-based Marine Band, known as "The President's Own," whose prime mission is to provide music for the White House.

The Marines have another 600 musicians in 12 bands around the country, costing $35 million, according to a Corps spokesman.

There are no comparative figures available for the overall costs of military bands in the Navy and Air Force, because they are carried as expenses for subsidiary organizations spread around the country and overseas.

The Army, according to a spokesman, estimates that it spends about $195 million a year on its bands, but that does not include those of the National Guard. Altogether, the Army says on its Web site that it has 5,000 musicians, describing itself as "the largest and oldest employer of musicians in the country."

Based on the Marine figures, total Defense Department spending could reach $500 million or more a year.

A new Army Field Manual describes the purpose of Army bands, a description that could apply to all the military services. It says that the mission 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."

Col. Michael J. Colburn, director of the Marine Band, said his organization is unique in that it was organized to play for the White House. One result is that the professional musicians who become members of "The President's Own" do not go through Marine basic training, nor do they draw guard duty or other activities that members of other Marine Bands do.

"That does rub some people the wrong way," Colburn said, "but that was what we were created to do."

The Marine Band is in the third year of a five-year agreement, inside the Corps, that it is to get a 2 percent annual increase in its spending budget, Colburn said.

One recent change is to turn its newsletter entitled "Notes," in its 25th year, into a full-color, bimonthly publication. It is sent to more than 50,000 readers worldwide.

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