MINNEAPOLIS -- The unchanging horizon moves by slowly on an April morning as the Heartland of America Band’s two-vehicle convoy traverses the midwestern landscape of Iowa enroute to Minneapolis, where the band’s rock ensemble will rendezvous with area recruiters for a four-day concert series at local colleges and high schools.
Band members take turns being DJ’s filling the van with an eclectic mix of blues, jazz, current top-40 hits, and Yacht Rock classics from their phones to pass the time during the six-hour drive from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, to the Twin Cities.
As Iowa’s windmills are replaced with Minnesota's lakes, the band nears its destination to begin their tandem recruiting effort with the Air Force’s Detachment 1 and 343rd Recruiting Squadron.
Early the next morning - day one of the tour - Raptor arrives at Armstrong High School. With the speed and precision of a seasoned rock band road crew, they wheel their equipment in from the truck and begin to set up instruments and stage lights, run cables and conduct a soundcheck prior to the hundreds of students filling the Falcon’s music auditorium.
Raptor, silhouetted on the backlit stage, bust into ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ by Prince - the patron rock-n-roller of Minneapolis. Lights, energy, and music direct the students’ attention to the stage where Airmen are transformed into rock stars.
The auditorium became illuminated by a sea of swaying cell phone lights in rhythm with the music as Raptor belts out a set list of popular songs the teenagers enthusiastically sing along with.
Recruiters sit in the periphery of the concert hall for their chance to address the newly energized crowd. The 343rd RS not only enlisted the help of the Heartland Band ensemble but also invited a local Air National Guardsman, Brig. Gen. Dan Gabrielli, to share his experience in both the military and civilian worlds and talk about career paths available in the Air Force.
“One significant concept that was communicated was the vast variability that exists in Air Force careers said 2nd Lt. Georgia Ganster, a Gold Bar recruiter with the 343rd RS.
The rest of the Minneapolis tour would follow a similar pattern of set up - sound check, concert, student meet-n-greets, tear down, load the truck, and travel to the next venue - after a quick meal at a local eatery.
Each stop along the tour brought a slightly different audience and energy. What was hundreds of students at one venue would be just the band students at the next; full concert complete with the bright flash and flare of the stage lights to an intimate jazz jam followed a question and answers from both the band and attending recruiters.
One such venue - and the lone evening show of the tour - was held at Rockford High School. The audience was a blend of high school students, Civil Air Patrol and residents, including Purple Heart recipient Randy “Hook” Eberling.
“[I’m] proud to be an American; I’m grateful that we were able to attend a show like this in person,’ said Eberling. “[I’m] glad there is still pride in serving America.”
1st Lt. Robert Sondheim, deputy commander of the local Civil Air Patrol’s Skyhawk Composite Squadron, welcomed the rare appearance of Air Force members in Rockford and was enthusiastic about a return concert.
“We do not ordinarily have military bands play at the schools in this area, to my knowledge,” said Sondheim. “It would be great if there were more of these opportunities that could come our way and that we would be very happy to support.”
As the band began tearing down the stage equipment, students and community members spoke with the recruiters. Young girls stared up at women in flight suits while their parents thanked them for taking the time to come to Rockford. Others took another shot at a mobile flight simulator that was part of this event.
The band headed to a gig at Cooper High School the next morning.
“We enjoyed having the opportunity to host last week ... A TERRIFIC performance experience was had by all,” said Jennifer Rowan of Cooper High School. “Students and staff alike were impressed with the level of entertainment and musicianship, and thought the music performed was well executed and engaging.”
Following their final performance at Hastings High School, the band wrapped up their temporary duty assignment in the Twin Cities area, fulfilling all their mission pillars of connect, honor and inspire.