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Base band deploying to boost morale

By James Coburn | Talespinner Staff Writer | Nov. 20, 2006

Lackland Air Force Base, Texas — Top Flight, the Air Force Band of the West's popular tunes ensemble, is leaving soon on a monthlong deployment to Qatar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and United Arab Emirates to bring U.S. forces some nostalgic music from home.

It's the first war-zone deployment by a Band of the West group in the band's 59-year history at Lackland, said Band of the West spokesman Marty Lockaby.

In a move to reach forces in the field from all services, the 10-member group will be flown on Black Hawk helicopters to what is termed forward operating bases, said Master Sgt. Dan Friedly, making the trip as Band of the West's operations representative.

The band members earlier went through deployment training, and they will be wearing desert camouflage uniforms and carrying M-9 pistols for protection. "Hopefully, we won't need it," Sergeant Friedly said.

Visiting the forward operating bases in Iraq is "something unique about this trip," he said. This is the ninth trip by an Air Force band during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, Sergeant Friedly said. But he said the previous trips were to bases where an airplane can land, so troops at those bases also were being entertained by USO shows. "So we're getting out of the beaten path in performing for troops that the Air Force bands have not performed for before."

Two band members going on the trip, Tech. Sgts. Bill King and Donna Siler, have been on trips to the war zone before while they were members of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band.

"This will be my third time," said Sergeant Siler, a vocalist. "I'm excited to go. It's good to go support your troops," she said, noting Top Flight will be visiting Balad Air Base in Iraq, where more than 100 Airmen from Lackland's 59th Medical Wing are staffing the Air Force Theater Hospital.

Sergeant King, a 19-year veteran who plays the saxophone, said playing for the troops at Camp Victory and Camp Arifjan, both in Kuwait, 1 1/2 years ago, were "the most meaningful performances I've done since I've been in the Air Force."

"Bringing a piece of home to those guys over there, it's ...," he said, pausing for a loss of words before adding, "You can't even explain the meaning of it to us."

They said the music brings a good feeling to the troops.

"Can't beat it," Sergeant Siler said. "It brings them to tears, honestly," Sergeant King added.

Sergeant Friedly, who deployed in the last bucket with a similar-sized group from the Air Force Academy Band to gather advance information for this trip, said the band played "Rocky Top" for a commander from Tennessee at Baghdad International Airport. "Just to see the look on this guy's face, it brought him back home," the sergeant said.

"And all of his troops under his command, they welled up inside and you could sense the pride," he said.

Five of the group's members are leaving military spouses behind, said Master Sgt. Sarah Deluzio, who sings and plays keyboards. Four have spouses in the band, three have children, and the band members' parents are coming to San Antonio to care for their grandchildren when the band plays out of town.

"I'm excited about going over because I have a sister stationed at the embassy in Baghdad," Sergeant Deluzio said of Army Maj. Martha Granger. The group is scheduled to play there. "Also, I've never been on a Black Hawk helicopter, so I'm looking forward to it," Sergeant Deluzio added.

Airman 1st Class Melissa Plotkin usually plays French horn in the Concert Band, but said she volunteered for Top Flight as a singer "because it's something that I can give back. I just got in. I know people that have just got in that have already gone over there. They're fighting, so I want to do something."

As for representing Lackland, Tech. Sgt. Jon Packard, NCO in charge of Top Flight and bass guitarist, said, "I think we all look at it that way, but we realize that when we go over there, we represent the Air Force."

Sergeant Packard said the band plays popular music, "but that means rock, funk, country. We literally can cover any style, with the exception maybe of classical."

Other Top Flight members making the trip will be Staff Sgt. Nick Wellman, sound engineer, and Airman 1st Class Andy Wendzikowski, drums.

Joining the group as a guitarist is Master Sgt. Jimmy Weber from the Heartland of America Band at Offutt AFB, Neb.

The 10th member is an ops rep from the Air Force Band in D.C., Master Sgt. Dave Graves, who will gain knowledge for his band group that will deploy in the next bucket.

Band groups deploying to war zones as morale support for troops is a new direction for the career field, and everyone said they are excited about making the trip.

"It's an awesome experience and opportunity," Sergeant Friedly said, noting they were going to perform in 15 to 18 different places. "We get to do what we love to do for a living, and we get to do it for our servicemembers serving in harm's way.

"That type of experience, there's no way you can put that into words. We'll carry it the rest of our lives."