One year ago I sat at Bagram Airfield, in what is known as the Clamshell, and with a thousand other warriors I listened to Christmas music. Here is a story of that memorable day.
In a war zone, there are no days off. Yes, we have down days, and yes, there are periods of time when mission planning and implementation are done. For my assignment, even the civilian soldiers worked every day. We do not believe that an enemy force will grant us a period of non-kinetic action; the potential for a firefight is everywhere and any time. Other than physical training exercises, warriors carry their weapons at all times.
Yet our base commander provided a Christmas day program. This was to be one of my memorable moments in the Afghanistan theater of our war on terror. To sit with my fellow comrades in a land a long ways away, with music entering the space of an airfield that is normally full of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, is, indeed, extraordinary.
The band is based out of Fort Drum in New York, the home station of the 10th Mountain Division. Their mission is “to be manned and trained to deploy rapidly by air, sea and land anywhere in the world, prepared to fight upon arrival and win.”
Fort Drum was originally named Pine Plains, serving as a training area for troops since the War of 1812. The site today trains 80,000 soldiers annually. The fort is named after Lt. Gen. Hugh A. Drum, who commanded the First Army in WWII.
Drum’s troops entered combat on January 28, 1945, in the North Apennine Mountains of Italy. As the Germans found themselves quickly outmaneuvered by these “alpine” soldiers, the division secured Highway 65 and an opening to the Po Valley. More than 1,000 German prisoners were captured. The 10th destroyed five elite German divisions during the war, while suffering nearly 1,000 casualties and 4,150 wounded.
Warriors from the 10th have served in Desert Shield/Storm in 1990, Somalia in 1992 to 1994, Mogadishu in 1993, Haiti in 1994 to 1995, Bosnia in 1997 and during recent years in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The musicians of the 10th are all professional soldiers. Their schedule includes about 200 appearances each year. The commander and bandmaster, Warrant Officer William McCulloch, leads several ensembles from the 40-member group, including the Ceremonial Band, Concert Band, Rock Band, Jazz Combo, Dixieland Band and Brass and Woodwind Quintets.
On Christmas morning, as snow fell outside the Clamshell amidst freezing temperatures, the elevated stage appeared crowded as the musicians gathered. After introductory remarks by the Base Commander Col. Slaughter, the bandmaster raised his baton and the music began. A rousing entrée of Christmas music, some led by the wind instruments and some by the brass, filled the canvas tent. As the concert time drew to a close, the bandmaster led the musicians through all the military branch songs, including “When the army goes rolling along.” And when this final song was played, we stood and sung it all, in rapture, for the unit was one at that moment in time. I shall never forget it.
Often when we think of a war zone, we think of machines and weapons and warriors engaged in the kinetic battlefield. There is much of this to be sure. But there is more, and the human side of bonding together as a unit and standing side by side is enthralling and overwhelming.
I like to say that while I have been away from Afghanistan for 10 months, I am still there. Such a comment is not one of immaturity or longing for a historical reliving. Rather it is a fond memory that in the rigors of human fighting we as soldiers can sit for a while inside a canvas tent, with our weapons of war quieted, soften our footprint on foreign soil and take our hearts back home. Home to where our family and loved ones in another land, gathered perhaps for another Christmas dinner, remember us when grace is said.
Thus, on this Christmas, as I sat down for dinner, I had only one thought ... that of the 10th Mountain Division and my comrades that are now home. The sound of the 10th Mountain Band played in my mind, and I could see them once again on that stage as we rose and sang the U.S. Army Song. Or as said in the famous 10th Division motto: “Climb to Glory.” PD