Total Force: Behind the music
U.S. Air Forces Central Band "Total Force" gathers their gear Dec. 18, 2012, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. This was the first stop on the band's tour throughout Afghanistan, playing for U.S. and coalition service members. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder)
by Staff Sgt. Eric Burks
U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs
1/3/2013 - SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- (Editor's Note: This is the second article in a series about the U.S. Air Forces Central Band, the only assigned Air Force Band to the Central Command Area of Responsibility. Based in Southwest Asia, the current band "Total Force" is comprised of deployed Airmen from the Band of the U.S. Air Force Reserve.)
At the sound of the first few notes on the accordion, the two patients in a small room at the hospital looked up and smiled.
When the rest of the band joined in on the song -- an acoustic cover of Van Halen's "Jump" -- a small crowd of medical personnel gathered outside the room let out a chorus of cheers and applause.
The scene was unfolding inside the NATO Role III Hospital at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, a few days before Christmas as the AFCENT Band "Total Force" brought music, as well as holiday cheer, to locations around the base.
"One of the patients told me he wanted to get up and start dancing with the band," said U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Paul Kuhn, hospital staff nurse. "They thoroughly enjoyed it and so did we. It would be great for morale if the band could play here every day."
According to the band's leader, that's exactly the type of reaction the band strives to receive.
"We strive for those moments, that opportunity to reach people at the most basic human level and make them feel just a little bit better," said 1st Lt. Rafael Toro-Quinones, AFCENT Band officer-in-charge and a 15-year Air Force bandsman.
"Raising morale for U.S. service members and coalition partners is one of our top priorities, especially during this holiday season," he said. "Our warfighters need to be ready to accomplish the mission and must be spiritually, mentally and physically ready. I'm convinced that we're part of two of these three elements.
"Although it can be challenging to measure our impact in numbers, it is impossible to miss the immediate effect that we have on the warfighter," Toro-Quinones said. "At the end of one of our performances a commander looked at me and said 'this was awesome ... look at them all smiling.' Undoubtedly our team is fulfilling a very real and important role in the deployed environment."
Behind the scenes, it takes a lot of planning, preparation, and hard work before the band even takes the stage, said Master Sgt. Claudia Weir, AFCENT Band director of operations. Arranging a tour can take as little as a week, or up to three months, she said, depending on where the band will be playing.
"We're on the ground in the area of responsibility 365 days a year," she said. "We try to visit locations where our deployed members don't get a lot of music. We want to provide them a taste of home."
Weir and Toro-Quinones work in coordination with AFCENT Public Affairs leadership and host wing public affairs offices to develop a long-term strategy and ensure band assets go where they are needed. During the recent holiday tour in Afghanistan, "Total Force" completed 30 performances -- a mix of strolling sets and evening shows -- in nine days at multiple bases.
Each tour begins in Southwest Asia where the AFCENT Band is home-based. As band members practice and play local concerts, Weir and Toro-Quinones are busy planning the next tour. This includes arranging flights, preparing itineraries and working out logistical processes with host wing agencies at each planned stop.
Once it's time to "hit the road," the Airmen must palletize their own instruments and equipment. If the band will be performing in -- or even passing through -- Afghanistan, each member picks up their weapon and body armor on the way to the flight. Upon reaching their destination, the band must unload and transport their equipment to each stop along the way. As most tours involve multiple performances at each base, the hours quickly add up, according to Tech. Sgt. Steve Moore, AFCENT Band audio systems engineer.
"The part the audience doesn't see is that we arrive at the concert site three hours early to unload our pallet, set up the instruments, perform a sound check and troubleshoot any technical issues," he said. "When the music begins, if everything goes smoothly, it's a great show and the audience is thrilled. Once they leave, we're still on-site packing everything up and rebuilding the pallet for an hour or two.
"It's a seven or eight-hour work day for a two-hour show, and sometimes we'll play several shorter 'strolling gigs' earlier throughout the day," Moore said. "We strive to get out there and put on our best show for every single performance."
And whether the stage was large or small, the band frequently received immediate feedback from the audience.
"It was awesome," said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Chris Kane, Role 3 hospital surgeon, who was present for both the acoustic performance in the hospital, and an evening performance on the Kandahar boardwalk. "This was the best night I've had in nine months here."
Toro-Quinones said that while you can't measure morale with statistics or figures, the way an audience responds goes a long way to help evaluate impact.
"We're in the business of communication," he said. "We get instant feedback, and we can use that as a measuring stick."
While the band's job is not to drive convoys, patrol outside the wire, or put bombs on target, they remain focused on supporting those who do.
"As long as taking care of Airmen remains a priority, we have a very important job," Toro-Quinones said. "Weapons systems are the hardware our military uses to complete the mission, but that hardware is useless if we are not taking care of our total force."
To learn more about "Total Force," visit: https://www.facebook.com/AFCENTBand.