Marine's bagpipes make unique sound in Iraq

6 Jun 2003 | Army Master Sgt. Robert Cargie

In the distance there was a musical sound that, while familiar, normally wasn't heard in the compound of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters in central Iraq.  But there it was, musical, curious, and incongruous.

Through some bushes and down a dusty trail the sight of a dozen or so Marines huddled came into view.  The music became louder and more persistent.  A little farther and there he was -- the musician.  He was standing almost at attention, cheeks puffed with air.  It was a Marine playing bagpipes, in the middle of Iraq.

Lt. Col. Gregor Dinse, an I MEF G-2 (intelligence) operations officer,  was the one playing the bagpipes.

"I take them wherever I go," said Dinse.  "They have been to pretty much everywhere I have been to with the Marine Corps."

This includes the forests of Oregon, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms, Calif., Kuwait, and now Iraq.

Dinse, a reservist from Portland, Ore., stands six feet four inches tall.  He is an imposing figure without the bagpipes.  With it, he's a giant.  He's been playing "the pipes," as he calls them, for 14 years.  Dinse started lessons because of his father.

"It's probably the only thing my father and I have in common," Dinse said with a slight tone of regret. "It is an instrument of history and my father was an avid historian, like I am."

As he talks about the history of the bagpipes, what he does when he is not in uniform, becomes apparent.  Dinse is a high school teacher. He presents information as if he has a class in front of him. He is animated and passionate about the subject.

"The British military tradition made the bagpipes popular," said Dinse.  "The Scottish Highlanders would bring the bagpipes with them into battle. The pipers would be at the front of the charge."

Although of German descent, Dinse embraced this tradition.  In Portland, he is Pipe Sergeant for the Clan McClay Pipe Band.  Understandably, Dinse hasn't been  "actively serving" in that capacity since his activation.  The band plays at various parades and functions around Portland and across the United States and Canada. 

At one point during the war, Dinse was watching CNN and saw bagpipers from his band playing taps at the funeral for an army staff sergeant killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"There, in the middle of the war, I'm watching television and I see my band," Dinse said. "It was a very respectful expression."

Dinse calls these bagpipes his "combat pipes".  His wife gave it to him as a present.  The instrument weighs just about 8 pounds, not much of a burden in that respect, according to Dinse but it is a little cumbersome.  For protection, he wraps the bagpipes up in Gortex and puts it in a large plastic tube for protection.  Dinse said that most people think it's a map case. He is able to fit it in with his other equipment "without that much trouble."

Dinse works sixteen-hour days handling intelligence issues for I MEF.  But when time allows, and he can remove himself from his responsibilities, he brings the bagpipes out.  He said playing allows him to relax.

"For me its an escape," Dinse said.  "I think it forces me to concentrate on something totally different than work.  You get to get out there and play."

Calling music "an expression of the soul," Dinse is more than happy to share a little bit of his soul with Marines that wander by.

"I like playing for other people," said Dinse.  "Bagpipes have an incredible impact, you can see that.  I almost always get smiles."

As Dinse played, the audience grew.  In between tunes, he would answer questions.  It was as if he was back in the classroom.  Dinse reeled when someone asked what he thought about people who consider the bagpipes shrill.

"It's not exactly a subtle instrument," Dinse said with a big grin. "It's got a big, traditional sound.  It can be played happily or gravely.  The bagpipes affect people's emotions, sometimes not in a positive way."

When asked about the oddity of playing near the ruins of Babylon and a former presidential palace of Saddam Hussein, Dinse invoked his love of history again and went back to the British army.

He replied with a touch of sarcasm, "Iraq is no stranger to the sound of the bagpipe." He implied that the British controlled Iraq at the turn of the twentieth century and fought a few battles here.

After his reply, Dinse put the bagpipe's reed to his lips, filled the bellows with air and began to play the Marine Corps hymn.  The Marines around him came to attention. Dinse played the hymn with a little more verve than he had the previous tune.  This was, as if, to tell anyone who could hear the music that the Marine Corps now had its place in Iraqi history.