The Music Will Go On… Thoughts on Military Bands and Budget Cuts

The military has a variety of special duty assignments and jobs which fall under the radar. Some of them are assignments many service members aren’t even aware of. I had the pleasure of serving in one such duty assignment while I was in the USAF.

In 2002 I toured with a group called Tops In Blue, which is an Air Force entertainment group that travels around the world putting on performances for military members and their communities. During our tour, we performed over 140 times at over 120 locations in 20+ countries and 30+ states – all in the span of about a year. It was, to put it mildly, the opportunity and experience of a lifetime.

I served as the lighting director during my tour with TIB. I had the pleasure of serving with 25 other Airmen, all of whom I consider to be good friends to this day. I have remained in touch with most of the people I toured with, and it’s fun to see how they are doing in their lives.

Some of them have gone on to retire from the service, others, including myself, have separated to pursue other goals. And some of them are still serving in the USAF, Reserves, or ANG. Most are still pursuing their love and passion for music.

It was with pleasure that my wife and I got to see our good friend, SSgt. Angie Johnson still pursuing her dreams on NBC’s The Voice. My wife and I both served with Angie and have followed her music through the years. At the time, Angie was still serving in the Missouri Air National Guard, with the band, Sidewinder, part of the 571st Air Force Band, 131st Bomb Wing, Air National Guard.

Angie’s journey to getting chosen to perform on The Voice is an interesting one. She transferred to the ANG band after separating from active duty, and during that time, she sang and recorded music in and around Nashville. She was even getting close to giving up her dream of making it big in the music industry and moving on with life when something unexpected happened – an audience member shot a video of Sidewinder performing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” from a deployed location. That video, shot on a cell phone, and uploaded to YouTube, has been viewed over 2.7 million times at the time of this publication.

The Power of a Story

The YouTube video going viral brought Angie and Sidewinder a lot of attention. From there, the press caught on, and Angie and the Sidewinder band became instant hits, with guest spots on Entertainment Tonight, The Ellen Degeneres Show, and several others.

Staff Sgt. Brian Owens, a male vocalist from Sidewinder, was invited to perform “God Bless America” at the first game of the World Series.

Angie was invited to perform the National Anthem at a Seattle Seahawks game when the Seahawks had their Military Appreciation Day. The door was opened, and the members of Sidewinder didn’t look back.

The Voice Came Calling

Angie was invited to try out for The Voice, and she was selected to perform on team Cee Lo. I had never watched the show before, but I became an instant fan – and not just because of Angie. There are a lot of talented performers on the show, and it’s very entertaining. Angie held her own alongside some of the best unsigned musical talents in the US. She has the ability to perform on stage with anyone.

Angie made all of us proud and she has brought a lot of positive attention to the military at a time when a lot of the media is focused on the negative. I can’t stress how proud I am of Angie and her bandmates, and I wish all of them the best as they go forward.

Air National Guard Bands Facing Budget Cuts

Unfortunately, they may soon be going in separate directions. Budget cuts are taking their toll, and 6 ANG bands, including Sidewinder, will get the ax by 2013.

It’s an unfortunate side effect of troop drawdowns and budget cuts. One fan set up an online petition to keep the bands going but it didn’t gain enough signatures to be elevated. Even if it had, it may not have been enough.

The military bands, in all branches of the military, perform a special service for troops. I recall seeing the bands and other MWR shows perform while I was deployed in Qatar and Afghanistan, and recall the effect the performances had on me.

I also remember the experience of being a member of Tops In Blue as we traveled and performed throughout the Middle Eastern region, including performing in a bombed out building in Afghanistan less than a year after September 11th.

Troops were perched on armored personnel carriers, on top of flatbed trailers, or sitting on pallets of military equipment. The breaks between the songs were filled with the sound of distant mortars and machine gun fire. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time we closed the show with “God Bless the USA.” Even the full bird Colonel standing next to me didn’t try to hide his tears.

There is a reason these bands and other military groups exist – and it is for the morale of our troops who are stationed in places most performers don’t want to go. I understand the bean counters in Washington see these bands as an easy way to cut funds, but I doubt most of them have been to places where they are really needed.

The Music Will Go On…

I know the members of Sidewinder and the 5 other bands which are being disbanded will continue to perform music. It’s part of who they are, and I wish them all the best in pursuit of their personal and professional goals.

There are also other military bands and performance groups which will continue to visit the deployed locations and serve as morale boosters for the troops. I just hope this cut doesn’t lead to another cut, which leads to another cut until the bands are gone. Military bands are a tradition, and they should be preserved.

Best of luck to Angie, Sidewinder, and all the military bands out there. Thanks for being such an inspiration to hundreds of thousands of troops, and millions of others across America and around the world!

This article was originally published on my military site,, on March 6, 2012.