BAGHDAD - Inside a bright-blue room built on the edge of a drained swimming pool, Sunburn rocked. Who cared if it was 9 a.m.? That's why the post exchange sells energy drinks.
Spc. Mike Nelson crushed cans of Red Bull and Amp between solos on his green Paul Reed Smith electric guitar. Sgt. Jason Lane kept the rhythm going on the five-string bass. Sgt. David Champagne rocked the drums while his wife, Sgt. Jennifer Champagne, belted out lyrics to Radiohead, Muse and Mars Volta.
“We get to spend our deployments jamming out and playing for crowds – and, really, how great is this?” said Nelson, deployed with the 56th Army Band from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Back home in Washington, the band plays concerts as part of the Army’s recruiting effort. (The band is named after a song by British alt-rock band Muse.)
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Here in Iraq, Sunburn plays concerts at Victory Base Complex in Baghdad and for soldiers at bases across the country.
It’s one of six performance teams that comprise the 56th Army Band, whose primary duty is to play at ceremonies and other military functions.
The 36-member band has played for the president, the vice president, ambassadors and other high-profile visitors. Many soldiers play more than one instrument, and the band also splits into smaller groups, including a rock band, a Dixieland band, a woodwind quartet and a brass quartet.
And, of course, the soldiers must learn to play instruments while carrying an M-16 rifle.
“It’s a great gig – probably the best one in the Army,” said Sgt. Owen Unger, a 25-year-old Federal Way resident who plays saxophone. “I don’t know what other job I would want in the Army.”
The 56th Army Band arrived from Lewis-McChord with I Corps in March. It works from a building that used to have an indoor swimming pool built for Saddam Hussein’s daughter. (Soldiers have made several storage rooms with plywood in the deep end of the pool.)
They rehearse a few hours a day and play regularly, sometimes several times each week at the sprawling Victory Base Complex, the nerve center of the American military occupation of Iraq.
The soldiers see their deployment as a morale mission, with their concerts as a welcome break from the daily slog of a deployment.
“We hear the stories about guys in combat,” said David Champagne, a 27-year-old DuPont resident, “and it’s our privilege to get a chance to do this.”
The soldier-musicians also try to reach areas where entertainment can be scarce. The band packs two pallets of equipment when it travels, often by CH-47 Chinook or C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
One such trip, to a far-flung Marine base last year, still resonates with many members of the band. They arrived a day after an attack left one service member dead.
They toured the combat support hospital and met a Marine who had survived the attack. Shrapnel had peppered his face, and he was awaiting surgery. The next night, before their performance, the same Marine approached them and thanked them for their concert.
“It gave him that two hours to take his mind off of losing his buddy the day before,” Sgt. Maj. Frank Suri said. “If nothing else, being able to provide that distraction made this whole deployment worth it.”