Army rocks Marines in Najaf

5 Aug 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

Soldiers, sailors and Marines from the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment crammed into a stifling hot, Iraqi college cafeteria on Aug. 5, to forget the stresses of war and kick-back to the sounds of Government Property, a rock group made up of musicians from the 76th Army Band.

The V Corps Army band, based in Mannheim, Germany, is in the middle of the second week of an eight-week "Rock Iraq" tour that will take the 10-man group to 36 installations all across Iraq and Kuwait.

The high-energy act covers a full spectrum of musical variety.  Featuring a tight horn and rhythm section, Government Property's version of  "Soul Man" blows away the audience and then the band busts down the doors when they transition into some Eminem.

"Tell me that band was not awesome," said Lance Cpl. Ballardo Alcaraz, a maintenance clerk with Headquarters and Support Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, from Oxnard, Calif. "Man, it had big variety.  It had a little bit for everybody."

For the California-based young warriors, Government Property was a break from high operation tempo they had grown accustomed.

"At least for a few hours you feel like you're closer to home," said Marine Cpl. Ulises J. Cespo, a machine gunner in Combined Anti-Armor Team Red, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines from San Diego, Calif.  "Back at 29 Palms, we go out almost every week."

Bringing pleasure to the Marines is what makes the members of Government Property tick, said Army Staff Sgt. Eric H. Burger, the flamboyant trombone player, singer and unofficial ringmaster for the show. 

"I've got guys coming up to me after the show to shake my hand," said Burger. "I'm the one that should be coming to them and shaking their hands.  These guys lived through hell and they're thanking me." 

Although troop morale is a major support mission for the band, they are normally assigned to force protection missions during war, according to Burger, and once the 76th Army Band put its boots in the sands of Kuwait, the musicians were spending all of there time providing security.

"They did not want us even to practice," said Burger.  "We had to go sneak off to the other side of the camp so no one would know about it."

Although some of the members of the band have been playing together for years, Government Property really was not put together until after the unit moved to the desert, according to its newest member, Spc. J. Simpson of Garland, Texas, who plays the baritone saxophone in the full concert band and is one of vocalists for Government Property.

"The thing that makes this band so great is that everybody here hangs out together," said Simpson. "The showmanship some of these guys have is amazing."

The clandestine rehearsals paid off around the July 4th holiday, according to Burger. 

"The 4th of July cracked it for us," said Burger. "Some general wanted the troops to have a band and we were ready."

Although the band loves to play for the troops, putting on a show is not easy duty for the soldiers or the equipment of Government Property. Playing in the intense heat has melted electronics, and musicians have had to get IVs during the middle of the show.

"My bass player got food poisoning before one show," said Burger.  "He still got through the show but I'm not sure how."

Least anyone think that the musicians skipping out on guard duty have it easy, Burger points out that before each show the band ends up moving two tons of gear six times before they set it up at the next venue.  In between gigs, they wash uniforms and costumes and catch a nap before show time.  Working with little sleep and drenched in sweat, the band made its way on stage.

Dressed in black t-shirts and desert camouflage pants the sleep-deprived musicians come to life as the sound system cranked up as the show got underway.

"Marines make the best audiences," said Burger, right before he leaps on stage with his brass trombone. "The kids are happy, by the end of the first set they're ready to climb aboard for the rest of the show."

Taking care of the troops is what Government Property is all about, according to Simpson.  The long hours and hard work pays off after they hit the stage.

"When you go up there on stage and you see them mouthing the words right along with you, it's cool," said Simpson.