These soldiers play God Bless America on the Fourth of July and some perform Taps at funerals. Some mix and match their camouflage and combat boots with guayaberas for salsa shows, and each one can fire an M16 as well as read music.
They are the 13th Army Band, and when they set up at a bandshell in West Palm Beach this Fourth of July, they will be continuing a tradition that dates to before World War II.
Never heard of them? Florida Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, the state’s adjutant general, calls them “the best-kept secret in the National Guard.”
They are 43 musicians, mostly South Floridians, from weekend warriors on woodwinds who rehearse in battle dress uniforms to full-time trumpet players who don dress blues for funeral duties.
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The last time they mobilized for something other than music was Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. They put down their instruments and passed out bottled water and food packages in the waterlogged Lower Keys.
Twenty-five years earlier, preceding these particular band members, the unit did duty at a North Miami holding site during Miami’s 1980 McDuffie race riots.
But their bread and butter is patriotic music — the Army Goes Rolling Along, Anchors Aweigh, the Marines’ Hymn — plus show tunes and Frank Sinatra favorites like Fly Me to the Moon.
Yet there’s no confusing them with your granddad’s John Philip Sousa marching band. A dozen of them form Sintonía, to perform merengue, reggaeton and salsa — from standards like Rebellion to ballads like Yo No Se Mañana. For those shows they skip the dress blue uniforms in favor of battle dress and boots topped by guayaberas, a sartorial prerogative the Army grants its band commanders — in this case conductor Chief Warrant Officer Stephen K. Rivero, 46.
By day he’s band director at Pembroke Pines’ Flanagan High School, where the band sometimes does its weekend drills.
“You can stand a post with a rifle or you can stand a post with an instrument,” says Rivero, who requires that his troops keep both sets of skills up, meeting typically once a month at a South Florida armory or high school. Starting later this year, they’ll move into the still-under-construction Miramar Readiness Center, a 104,000-square-foot, $20 million building along Flamingo Road in southern Broward County along with three infantry units. The band gets its own rehearsal space.
Like every other American GI, Florida National Guard members must pass physical fitness tests (not be overweight, run two miles), have combat-ready teeth (no cavities in need of filings) and qualify on basic weapons, usually the M16.
This year, the military wants them trained on the M249 light machine gun, which will require a trip to the Guard's Camp Blanding training grounds in North Florida rather than bivouacking in hotels for performances around the state — celebrations, parades, change-of-command ceremonies, gubernatorial inaugurations.
Actual deployments, however, are rare.
The band’s drummer, Staff Sgt. Ralph Morales of Hialeah, spent 2010 as an infantryman between Iraq and Kuwait. But that was unusual. The Guard was looking for volunteers to join its biggest deployment since World War II.
Military bands are as old as the nation itself. The Marine Band, or “The President’s Own,” consisting of 32 drummers and fifers, was established by an act of Congress that was signed by President John Adams on July 11, 1798.
The Army Chief of Staff, Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, set up the U.S. Army band, “Pershing’s Own,” in 1922, apparently after enviously eying European bands in World War I.
The 13th Army Band traces its lineage to a headquarters band formed at the 265th Coast Artillery in Miami on Feb. 25, 1930.
Every state National Guard but Alaska, Montana and Nevada has one, according to National Guard spokesman Maj. Earl Brown in Washington, D.C., modeled after the full-time, active-duty Army bands. But some have declined in recent years through cutbacks and sequestration, with headquarters authorizing fewer slots.
However, Florida’s has been lucky. Calhoun, the adjutant general, knows all about bands. He graduated from Florida A&M in 1976. And for more than a decade, the 13th Army Band has been in his chain of command.
Now the state’s top soldier, he has been outspoken about his fondness for band members. In an interview, he recalled with pride how they set aside their instruments to pass out supplies after Hurricane Wilma.
The band was split between Homestead Air Base, helping ship supplies, and Sugarloaf Key, where they found high ground near a church and spent days handing out bottles of water, tarps and food packages.
“It was my first time actually being deployed in an actual Army mission not having to do with music,” recalled Sgt. Richard Diaz, 31, a 13-year veteran who joined the band from Miami Beach Senior High School, where he played trumpet and the euphonium. It also was his last deployment.
A memorable musical mission was a 2008 trip to St. Kitts to train with the Caribbean nation’s military and partake in a parade with the St. Kitts Nevis Defence Forces Band. “It was amazing. The whole country was there,” he said.
Many days Diaz can be found in the Honor Guard Unit at the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth, playing Taps. “I love it. There’s a lot of honor in what we do,” he said.
“Most soldiers, they dread going to drill once a month,” says Diaz, using the term for the mandatory monthly training that hones a weekend warriors’ skills. “Like a tanker has to go and perform maintenance on tanks and paperwork. But our job is to sit down and play music.”
Some band members candidly admitted that other troops mock their service. To that, several replied that other troops also envied their sense of camaraderie — in combat they call it “Unit Cohesion” — that sees them gather not just monthly to rehearse, but also for birthdays, weddings and funerals.
“Somebody has a baby, and we all show up,” Diaz said. They did the same in July 2009 for the funeral of a trumpet player, Sgt. Myles Davis, just 21, who was electrocuted while trying to secure a live power line outside his job at Lou’s Police Distributors in Hialeah.
There’s so much solidarity that, sometimes, when these citizen soldiers find work far from South Florida they come back to drill. Trombonist Spc. Jose Morales McCullers, a music teacher in Texas, makes the journey each month, mostly by plane. Flute player Staff Sgt. Mary Barnes commutes from Georgia, mostly by car.
The youngest is Cuban-born Spc. Alejandro Aguirre, just 18, who played the French horn for Hialeah Gardens High and was recruited before graduation. The eldest is University of Miami music graduate Sgt. 1st Class Seth Innes, 52, who’s on virtual full-time active-duty as the coordinator of military funeral honors in the state’s southeastern region. A trombone and piano player, he also came out as the state’s top pistol shooter in the Florida Guard’s military marksmanship contest.
It’s a quirky unit. Most were accomplished musicians in their own right who auditioned with the band first and, once accepted, then went to boot camp — to learn to march and shoot and don the uniform.
More than a few are music teachers or band instructors in civilian life, such as Rivero, the commander who was recruited to the unit in the early ’80s by the man he replaced, who just so happened to also be his high school band director at Miami Southwest High School.
But one of their best players, Staff Sgt. Ralph Napoles, activities director at Hialeah Gardens High, joined the Reserves as a combat engineer, only to cross over later with his saxophone. The same was true for Spc. Camilo Perez, 22, a saxophonist who spent three years in a Florida Guard infantry unit, heard about the band, auditioned and crossed over just seven months ago. Napoles and Perez attended Hialeah Miami Lakes High School.
“I was just really gung-ho after high school. I didn’t really know about the band,” says Perez, a student of music therapy at Miami Dade College who says infantry basic training is one of the hardest things to go through in the Army. “They teach you really crappy situations. They want you to know what miserable feels like.”
This Fourth of July will be his first with the band. He’ll play the horn in West Palm Beach in a concert that promises patriotic music plus Cole Porter classics from the Great American Song Book — a drill day that counts toward what he hopes will be Army service in the band until retirement.
“My main focus isn’t combat operations and destroying terrorists and stuff like that,” he said, envisioning a 30-year National Guard career. “My main focus is now to play my horn, make good music and make people happy. It’s the best job in the military hands down.”
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The 13th Army Band performs in different places each Fourth of July. This year they’re joining “4th on Flagler festivities” in West Palm Beach at the Meyer Amphitheater, 105 Evernia St. The band plays at 6:30 p.m.