In 2001, I was a first lieutenant stationed at my first band (The U.S. Continental Army Band or TRADOC Band as it is known now at Fort Monroe, VA). (BTW, it is a travesty that Fort Monroe is closing due to BRAC – a beautiful, historic post.) September 11, 2001 was originally going to be a day off for the band because it had worked the weekend prior. I was driving from my home in Virginia Beach to Fort Monroe to catch up on some work while the band was out of the office. I remember listening to Imus, who was complaining about who knows what, when the news broke that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. As crazy as it sounded, I thought for sure it was a horrible accident; an isolated incident. Minutes later, the second plane hit and I knew it wasn’t an accident. By then, I was at the office. By maybe 11:00 (I can’t remember), I received a call from the post commander to get the band ready to help augment the Military Police at the gate. I called my commander, told her the situation, and by that night, the band was rotating on the gate pulling security as the post was at its highest force protection level.
The band did that for about two weeks and then went back to doing what it does best – making music. My commander and I put together a concert program that we thought would fit the bill for what people would want from their military bands: a program that was reflective at times to give them the vehicle and space to grieve, and optimistic and patriotic to tell them that their country is strong and great and that we will endure. We performed two “In Remembrance” concerts in the Hampton Roads area while simultaneously fielding requests from a couple of friends of mine from New York. The result was a tour that included performances on Long Island and New York City.
Working with the Army Public Affairs Office in NYC, we were able to perform outdoor concerts in HBO Plaza, Grant Park, Penn Station and at the Central Park bandshell. All of it was an incredibly emotional experience but one moment in particular stands out. We were performing (in our battle dress uniforms or camouflage) in Grant Park when, after I was finished conducting my portion of the program, a middle-aged woman walked up to me with tears in her eyes, thanking me (the band) for being there. She hugged me and asked what she could do for her country. It took all of my resolve not to break down.
The other almost surreal moment was when we were able to go to Pittsburgh on the way back to Virginia and perform for the opening of Heinz Field (the then new home of the Steelers). We performed during the pre-game outside the stadium and were scheduled to perform on the field during halftime. About ten minutes before halftime, the Steelers’ entertainment director told us we were being preempted by an announcement by President Bush, which they were going to show on the stadiums screens. It was October 7 and it was the announcement that we were beginning offensive operations in Afghanistan against terrorist camps and the Taliban regime. The crow erupted and began a deafening chant of “USA! USA!” It was unreal and unique to that moment in time. About halfway through the third quarter we got up to leave and head back home to Virginia. We were wearing our dress blue uniform so we stood out. As we left, the crowd began to chant again – “USA! USA! USA!” Wow.
We performed six more concerts in the Virginia Hampton Roads area over the next four weeks or so; each concert was packed and the response was universally overwhelming. If I doubted the importance of my job or the role of military bands, I never did again after that experience.