AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar --
If only we knew at the beginning of 2020 to beware the Ides of March.
With the Ides came COVID-19 and a drastic shift to the landscape of our military as we knew it. Deployment date changes, teleworking, base transfers halting, and many other disruptions to our well-oiled machine meant bases around the world faced numerous changes and challenges to missions.
Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar found itself missing one ensemble component of its force: The U.S. Air Forces Central Band.
“When times at AUAB are normal, we are always traveling and almost never here,” said 1st. Lt. Brian O’Donnell, officer in charge of the AFCENT Band. “The last performance team rotation left in March right at the start of the pandemic, making this the first team in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in nine months.”
With the band not normally offering performances at Al Udeid, one might think its absence would be unnoticeable. Keep in mind, they’re on a mission from the Combined Forces Air Component Commander – spanning the entire USCENTCOM area of responsibility.
“We don’t always completely focus on the troop support side of our mission because we have such a big ambassadorship mission under the U.S. Department of State,” said Staff Sgt. Craig Larimer, vocalist and pianist for the AFCENT band. “Music is the universal language, and we're professional communicators. Professionals at taking the energy in a room and knowing how to break down barriers with music.”
Typically, the band’s efforts have focused on supporting diplomatic partnership building in concert with the Department of State. By fostering these relationships and strengthening U.S. partnerships throughout the AOR, the band is building bridges between different languages and cultures.
“We will proudly represent the Department of Defense as a strategic partner of Qatar in 2021 as a part of the U.S.-Qatar Year of Culture,” said O’Donnell. “It has been months or even a year since many of us have heard live music, and our audiences off base are going through the same kind of drought. After World War II, American jazz music was the music of freedom throughout Europe. In the AFCENT AOR, we can deliver the same impact as we begin to conclude this year of silence.”
During a time of transition and change, showing support through music will be even more impactful as audiences enjoy performances by “Wild Blue Country,” the U.S. Air Force’s only country group. Just as jazz brought a unique American sound to foreign countries, country music is easily identifiable as an American sound, and it can connect with many in times of hardship. Since the pandemic started, TIME reported country music’s popularity in the U.S. rose 15.8% across streaming services.
“Country music is all about storytelling,” Larimer said. “That folk culture it comes from means there's a narrative involved. I think we have an awesome opportunity with this particular band where we can perform popular music, but it's not just about having a party and sharing good music. We’re actually going to be able to tell stories too, and it’s also the same story that people would know here, even if it’s about someone from Georgia or Texas.”
Bringing people together through storytelling may not be what you think of when you think Air Force Band. We often see them performing in support of operations at our home stations at events such as reveille during cadets’ graduation at the Air Force Academy or a holiday performance in Washington D.C., but this arm of the Air Force falls under the Public Affairs career field for a reason.
“The goal of the band is to honor, inspire and connect our audience,” said O’Donnell. “We demonstrate the professionalism of the American Air Force and facilitate conversation and connections in ways that standard means of diplomacy cannot. We inspire and encourage our own troops, coalition and interagency partners who are on rotation out here just like us. The goal is to bring just a little bit of America and American culture to those who need to hear it most.”
With the unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19, and a #NewYearNewMe attitude, the nine-member band plans to move performances to the base they call home.
“We have a unique opportunity to make the people at the base where we’re stationed more of a focal point for what we're doing, and I think it's pretty unarguable that people need some respite right now,” said Larimer. “If we could get even 10 people together using safe guidelines … it's cheesy sounding but there's no ear restrictions right now. We know we would have a huge impact on that small audience, which makes it all worth it. We're seeing this as an opportunity to revitalize the mission that we already have and rethink and redirect how and where we can have impact.”
COVID-19 restrictions have been the biggest challenge the band and planners have faced as they look toward performing outside of the Al Udeid Air Base. Typically, as the band is constantly traveling, they will play a game of planes, trains and automobiles to get to a gig by any means necessary. However, they are currently restricted to travel via Air Force aircraft, so are taking every opportunity to make it to available locations and are planning virtual performances in lieu of live concerts as they continually seek out ways to expand their audience reach.
“Designing more creative events that might not look like a typical concert helps ensure we are doing our jobs while maintaining COVID safety measures proscribed on installations,” said O’Donnell. “We just did a live performance where the amount of people who could attend was capped. The limitations created by the pandemic have created an unprecedented opportunity for us to find creative ways to raise the spirits of our Air Force, joint and coalition colleagues on base.”
The band performed for an audience limited to 50 at a venue provided by the United Kingdom coalition. Called “Churchill’s,” this outdoor space allowed others not inside the venue to enjoy the performance from other base recreational areas as well.
“Hearing that people could hear us throughout the base and were able to enjoy a little bit of the small show we put on means the world to us as deployed performers, and we hope to continue to discover new ways to reach anyone who wants to hear us,” O’Donnell continued.
Figuring out how to have an impact with such an enormous change to the mission became much easier when the band arrived in the AOR. When band deployment rotations were suspended in March, work began to determine when to bring in a new team. Work for Wild Blue Country’s arrival began in July. The band arrived in November and quarantined for a two-week period.
“Picking up members from the quarantine area was one of the happiest days of the past few months for the two of us on the planning team who have been here,” said O’Donnell. “We are looking forward to the hard work of getting the team where we need to be, hitting the crowds we need to hit and delivering the messages we need to deliver now that the band’s back together.”