Sgt. Marcus Bowers went to Iraq armed . . . with a tuba.
Staff Sgt. Michael Robertson had double the ammo — a French horn and a trombone.
As two members of the first reservist band deployed in combat since World War II (the 42nd Infantry Division Band of Freeport, N.Y.), these two Utahns are making history.
"We bring music, as opposed to guns, and I think that's a very different feeling," said Bowers. "It's something that's always welcomed, as opposed to guns and violence and things like that. I think it's very much a peacekeeping token."
Of course, they also carry weapons.
Robertson said their musical duties are in addition to a security mission, with various guard duties throughout the post. So after roughly 40 hours of security duty, most band members put in another couple of hours each day rehearsing, practicing and performing.
"The good thing about that is it's good, constructive work," said Robertson. "It's relatively safe, compared to what some others are doing, and it sure makes the time fly."
Bowers and Robertson are both Utah natives, although they are deployed as members of the New York National Guard.
Robertson graduated from Olympus High School and the University of Utah. After four years of teaching at Eastmont Middle School in Sandy, he took a job as a music teacher at an elementary school in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, and later earned a master's degree in music education from the State University of New York.
Bowers graduated from Taylorsville High School and Brigham Young University, majoring in tuba performance. At the time of his deployment, he was pursuing a master's degree at Queens College.
Both play for a brass quintet that performs for memorial services for deceased soldiers and other honorary ceremonies. Bowers said his first experience playing in the quintet happened even before he left New York. It was for a soldier who had died as he was going home for R&R. "The reality of what we were getting into was brought home a little clearer."
Both agreed that the experience of playing for the memorial services is "incredibly profound."
"Just like any funeral service or memorial service, it's done primarily to help the living grieve," said Robertson. "Even though, with very few exceptions, we haven't known the soldiers that we perform for, we still share the pain that their comrades feel when we go to the different bases and then play. We listen to peoples' voices break when they're reading about their departed friend, we watch them cry, and the music, in a lot of ways, helps people.
"It's very poignant and profound, and it's very important
Additionally, Robertson said, the performances are videotaped and sent home to the soldiers' families. "Many of the families have commented on how impressed they were that the Army would care enough to send a musical group to perform for their departed loved one."
Bowers said that playing for the memorial services can also be difficult work. "You're required to go and grieve with these people for half an hour or forty-five minutes. A lot of times when we're in the helicopters on the way to or from these memorial services, we just sit there and make jokes, because I think it's our own way of dealing with it."
They also play at graduation ceremonies for Iraqi police officers, at a nearby police-training facility. "I think it's always interesting going out to the Iraqi army or Iraqi police," said Bowers. He added that he particularly admires those people for being willing to put their own lives on the line, to stand up to their own countrymen.
Robertson said that when they go there, the police graduates march onto a field while the band plays. Unfortunately, for security reasons, their friends and family can't attend while the graduates receive their honors, but the band plays the Iraq national anthem for them and then marches them off the field again. The whole ceremony, he said is entirely in Arabic.
It gets a very positive reaction from the Iraqis, Robertson said. "The soldiers and the policemen definitely enjoy it. You can tell by the way they march, you can tell by the way they look at us. And anything that we do to make the U.S. look positive is a good thing. We do have, I think, more capacity to do that than a lot of the other soldiers because of our duty and our mission."
Both Bowers and Robertson feel the Iraqi response to American presence there is generally positive. "The majority of the people are positive toward us, definitely," said Robertson. "They appreciate our presence there, and they know that their lives are better and that they are going to continue to improve.
"When we fly, we fly Black Hawk helicopters all the time to go to performances — especially memorial performances — and the people are running out of their houses, out of their mud huts, or their various homes of different sorts, or they will be working in their fields, and they will come running toward the helicopters and just wave frantically and happily. They don't run and hide, they don't make gestures or anything, they're very nice and very friendly."
Robertson said that's especially significant because their base is located in the middle of a Sunni stronghold, in the "Sunni triangle." "And if we get a positive reaction here, then you'd have to know that there are positive feelings throughout the country."
Bowers said that when he talks with the Iraqis who work on the base, it's common for them to say things like, "My father was killed by Saddam," or "I was tortured by Saddam." "So just the fact that Saddam is gone," said Bowers, "that we're responsible for that, I think they're very happy."
Another important aspect of their duties as musicians, said Robertson, is morale-building.
Robertson also plays for a Latin band and a show band for the American soldiers stationed in Iraq. "The morale-building aspect is very important because it lets the soldiers know that others care about them, that others are thinking about them, and it gives them a taste of home.
"We can't change people's circumstances or peoples' feelings, but at least for a few moments, while they're listening to us, they kind of forget where they are and what they're doing and they enjoy the music. And then it gives people a little lift that they wouldn't normally have."
Bowers also has the opportunity of playing the piano each Sunday for their LDS Church service, which is attended by about five people wearing their desert camouflage uniforms. The service may be smaller, he said, but it's also more intimate and meaningful.
Robertson says he feels honor and pride serving his country and for what the United States is doing in Iraq. "I do feel like I'm making — not in a huge way — but I do feel like I am making a positive difference."
He added, "But I have a conflict between all of that and the enormous sadness and guilt I feel over being away from my family. I have a lovely wife of 17 years, and we have three daughters, and they're by far the most important things in my life and I miss them terribly."
Both men also expressed appreciation for support from home. "I know many, many people who do not support the war," said Robertson, "but they do support the troops, and we appreciate that more than you can know."