The sounds of freedom

The sounds of freedom Staff Sergeant Matthew C. Erickson of Marcus, IA, was a featured soloist at Saturday's U.S. Air Force Heartland of America Band concert, held in the Vermillion High School Auditorium. Performing in Vermillion was, to a degree, like coming home for Erickson. He attended The University of South Dakota, earning a bachelor of music degree magna cum laude in May 2000. He also served as a student music teacher in the Vermillion School District while attending USD. By David Lias People who attended Saturday�s performance of the United States Air Force Heartland of America Band knew some excellent musical performances were in store.

But is that what the band is all about � simply playing patriotic tunes?

By the end of the concert, the audience learned that the musicians� mission is much more that to simply entertain.

Major A. Phillip Waite, the band�s conductor, paused during the second half of the band�s performance to speak directly to the crowd.

He talked about the sacrifices being made that very moment by men and women in the armed services all over the globe, and particularly in Iraq.

He spoke of the freedom kept alive in this country by many of the audience members who served in World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.

And, he thanked them.

�Our main message is to deliver messages to inspire hearts and minds of Americans, and anyone who listens to us, whether that�s foreign nationals, or our troops, or our civilian counterparts right here throughout the states,� Major Waite said following the concert. �Our real mission is to inspire hearts and minds.�

He doesn�t believe the message of the band has grown more important since the attacks on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001, or since the United States military response in Afghanistan and Iraq.

�It has grown more poignant,� Major Waite said. �I don�t think it (the band�s message) has ever been more important, because before that time, and I�ve traveled to 45 of the 50 states giving performances all over in those states, the patriotism was amazing in this country.

�It was there alive and well and fervent before 9-11 ever happened. But now, I think, it is more poignant. We are coalescing as a nation, and focusing on where we need to focus, and the fact that there are men and women who are willing to go into harm�s way,� he said. �There always have been and to even give their lives on behalf of their country. That�s a piece of the message that we wanted to deliver tonight � that we can never forget those sacrifices that can be made.�

Major Waite took time during the concert to share his first-hand knowledge of military people currently in harm�s way in Iraq, whose love of country leads them to risks their lives every day to carry out their missions.

That patriotic theme was driven home near the end of Saturday�s concert, as a narrator read heart-filled passages written by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that demonstrate their deep love for not only the United States, but the men and women who sacrificed their lives to preserve it.

Major Waite first honored the veterans in the audience by asking them to stand to waves of applause.

Near the conclusion of the concert, the band played the service songs of each branch of the U.S. military. Major Waite asked veterans and current members of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard to stand as Technical Sergeant Kenneth G. Maxwell sang the familiar lyrics to each song.

Many of the veterans who stood served during WWII and the Korean conflict.

�There were a lot of 45 to 55-year-olds that I saw in the audience as well, that were the most emotionally overcome, and I think they were the ones from the Vietnam era,� Major Waite said, �who came home not to ticker tape parades but to jeers and scorn and accusations by the public for doing something that they thought was right.

�To them, this is a healing,� he said. �It�s almost like a catharsis, to be able to go through it and come out the other side and say, ?We are appreciated for what we have done. People now know the sacrifices that we made and the horrors that we�ve had to endure and see.� That�s all part of our performance as well � sharing that with the public.�

The Vermillion audience knew from the Air Force band�s opening song that they were listening to a uniquely talented group of women and men.

�These are all professional musicians. We go out and recruit them from universities, from grad schools, from professional organizations out in the community, and civilian organizations, such as symphony orchestras,� Major Waite said. �These are folks who are on the average about 28 years old. Our average airman in the Air Force who comes in is about 19 or 20 years old. There are about 780 enlisted people, and 76 percent of them have their bachelor degree already, and another 42 percent have their master�s and 6 percent have their doctorates.�

Like others who join the Air Force, the musicians go through a period of basic training.

�But first they win their audition with us for the right to come into the Air Force as a bandsman,� Major Waite said.

After completing the preliminary rigors of the Air Force and completing basic training, the women and men musicians �come back to us (the band), and they�re an Airman First Class,� he said. �They love to play, and they love to serve their country. Those are the two common denominators.�

While on tour, the band travels from one community to the next in two large buses. The musicians change from their �civvies� into spit-and-polish dress uniforms before each performance.

After each concert, they change back into their casual clothes, tote their luggage and instruments to their buses, and are soon on the road again.

It�s a lifestyle that�s not quite as rough as it appears, Major Waite said.

�It�s much better than going from smoky bar to smoky bar. It�s not a situation where every night, when you finish your gig, you�re unemployed,� he said, laughing. �They are surrounded by integrity, and they are surrounded by people like themselves who want to serve.

�They want to have excellence in everything they do, and that�s part of the Air Force culture,� Major Waite said. �Most people, when they come in as a musician to join us, they can�t possibly grasp what we have here.�

The Air Force musicians quickly understand their mission, however, after their first performance.

� It hits home with nearly every one of them,� the band�s conductor said. �We have a huge retention rate.We have 80 to 85 percent who want to continue past four years and make a career of it.�

Major Waite can�t say enough about the individual characteristics of each of his musicians.

�They are wonderful human beings,� he said. �They are a great reflection of the excellence that goes on every day in the Air Force by every member.�

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