When I joined the Army, I had visions of camouflage and shooting weapons but soon discovered that military specialties are as varied as those wearing the uniform.
In fact, there exists an ensemble of individuals whose preferred weapons consist of musical instruments and who perform on the world’s stage — from war zones to our backyard — where their skills evoke emotion. These men and women serve as military musicians.
For years, Chief Warrant Officer Five (CW5) Doug Paarmann led Soldiers of the 323rd Army Band, using music to brighten a sometimes gray world. Doug was born into a world of music and marching.
His father was a soldier and bandmaster; his siblings, son and niece are musicians. He parlayed his love of music and teaching (he once was a public school teacher) into a successful army career. I heard him perform often, but two ceremonies encapsulate the profound effect his soldier-musicians had on an audience.
Recently, a diverse group of people came together in San Antonio. Everybody was well-dressed and smiling, beaming actually, for this was the day they would become our nation’s newest citizens. Most held American flags close to their hearts.
I imagined their quests probably patterned our own ancestral stories — escape from war, oppression, opportunity, adventure. Anxiety was palpable among the crowd that day, but so was the dream of freedom.
Off to the side and largely unnoticed, a group of Army musicians quietly readied themselves (like infantry securing a perimeter). And then a soldier blew into an instrument, followed by another, and a stick found its mark on a drum.
Sounds co-mingled above us, found themselves and the first notes of “America the Beautiful” pierced the auditorium followed by the “William Tell Overture,” where the tempo seemed to pattern the journeys of those in the audience. Curious heads turned, hands clapped and feet tapped to the rhythm. Anxious faces turned to smiles.
The JROTC Color Guard from John F. Kennedy High School began the ceremony with speakers from the Daughters of the American Revolution and local fifth-graders reading essays on citizenship. Judge Zavier Rodriguez, himself the son of an immigrant, read the Oath of Naturalization, “…I do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States…and take this obligation freely.” After the swearing in, former strangers hugged, smiled, and shook hands. In that moment, they were no longer strangers but Americans.
When Sgts. Lopez, Owen, Walton, Byrne and Martin — themselves representing a cross-section of America — played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the crowd quietly looked to them, these soldiers of democracy, welcoming them to America in their own way: the universal language of music conveying, “Welcome. Welcome to America. The Land of the free!”
The second ceremony, which remains with me, involves Sgt. 1st Class Luke Jefferson, a paratrooper and trumpet player, attending the funeral of a homeless veteran: a volunteer honor guard the only attendees. At ceremony’s end Luke played taps, and somber notes drifted across a field of stones to honor one who once wore the uniform.
Songs can carry us to special times in our lives and set us right. Those who produce those melodies are special. So thanks, Chief Paarmann, for leaving the fields of Iowa to provide a backbeat to our lives for 32 years. Though retiring, the beat goes on.
Lt. Col. Zoltan Krompecher is an active-duty Army officer who writes in his off time and is a contributing writer to the book “Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front.” These views are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.