“Military City, USA” is losing a treasured piece of pomp and pageantry supplied for more than a century by Fort Sam Houston’s Army band.
Spending cuts and reorganization in the U.S. Department of Defense have led to the downsizing of the nation’s military bands and the looming deactivation of San Antonio’s 323rd Army Band, better known as “Fort Sam’s Own.”
Originally established in Carlisle Barracks, Pa., the band moved to San Antonio in 1946 along with the Army Medical Schools. But Fort Sam has been home to a military band in one form or another dating back to 1893. After next year’s Fiesta, “Fort Sam’s Own” will fall silent, its members dispersed to other Army bands around the country.
“They [the Army] had to give up 179 [band] positions across the nation. Nobody wanted to make the decision,” Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jonathan Ward said of the cuts, which have resulted in four of the Army’s 91 bands being deactivated. “It’s hard to swallow, because it’s a great mission here.”
The impact of the band’s absence will be felt across San Antonio and southeast Texas, where Ward, as the band’s commander, directs his 56 men and women through what amounts to more than 375 missions, or engagements, in one calendar year – at least one performance a day.
The band’s busy schedule is made possible by its eight different ensemble variations, which include a rock band, a New Orleans-style brass quintet, and jazz band, along with the traditional concert and marching bands.
The decision made to deactivate the band is not a shock to leaders like Ward, who have been aware that some members of Congress have been seeking to downsize the military budget for bands.
“Congresswoman [Martha] McSally of Arizona has been very public about her vision for what military bands should be,” Ward said. “There was a bill on the floor a year ago that essentially said [bands] couldn’t do things off post, no community relations.”
The measure did not pass, but the amount of support McSally drew certainly did not help the band’s cause.
While Joint Base San Antonio is the largest such base in the U.S. Department of Defense, it also is home to two military bands: the 323rd and the Air Force Band of the West, which serves the entire western United States.
“But they’re probably more taxed than we are and will not be able to reach more than one-fourth of the missions that we served,” Ward said.
Aside from basic soldier support – change of command and retirement ceremonies, graduations, and funerals – the band members are called upon to provide entertainment at Army balls, dinners, and Memorial Day events, Ward said.
What Ward said he will miss most are naturalization ceremonies. “These are oath of allegiance ceremonies where immigrants are getting their citizenship,” he said. “It’s sad that we can’t play for that. That’s about as American as you can get.”
Sgt. Tim Rogers, musical director for the brass quintet, has been playing the trumpet since fourth grade. The part of his job that holds the most meaning in the playing of taps at military funerals.
“As a trumpet player, it’s the most honorable thing I can do – if I only did that, I’d be happy,” Rogers said. “Without us here, it’ll be speaker bugles. It’s still taps, but it won’t be the same.”
For Sgt. Leann Raley, a flute player and music performance team leader for the woodwind quintet, the power of music lies in its ability to make everyone feel safe, something very important when you’re on the front lines.
“There is something so personal about us being on the field,” she said. “It shows dedication which our soldiers have earned. It’s truly irreplaceable. I’ve been to Korea, Japan, Iraq, and no matter what, you can still communicate with people.”
Raley told the story of Col. Brian Allgood, who was killed in a helicopter accident in Iraq during her service there. “Every time I play Ave Maria it hits me,” Raley said, recalling the song that inspired Allgood in Baghdad. “He talked so much about us that we were called to play for the funeral. We are making an impact on a very personal level.”
Band members will still be able to continue their mission as Army musicians, and most have already received orders for their next post. Ward has dedicated 22 years to military bands and will have a new post as commander of a different band.
“We have to have time to plan our futures,” Ward said.
The 323rd will perform during next year’s Fiesta and will gradually dissolve until full deactivation in the fall of 2018.
“We will take time to inventory, close down quarters, and distribute our musical library,” Ward said of the vast amount of compositions and scores developed throughout the band’s history, much of which will go to schools and music-based nonprofits. “Members can take their instruments with them if they wish.”
The 323rd doesn’t only work to improve Army morale, but that of the entire city. Whether at a Fiesta parade, in high schools across the city, at City-sponsored events, or even conventions like the recent national LULAC meeting, the band brings its commitment to musical excellence backed by military training and support.
“We’re provided by the government, so we’re free,” Ward said. “When we go away, it may open the door for civilian musicians to go out and play, but that would mean someone has to cover costs.”
Because of this government support, schools and nonprofits are able to collaborate with the band, opening the door to sharing new ideas and providing music education.
“I love working with SAYWE, they are so attentive and so into the music,” Ward said of his experience with the San Antonio Youth Wind Ensemble, a competitive volunteer ensemble from across the city. “When we’re all sitting down together, we learn so much from one another. It renews for us why we do what we do.”
The collaboration, referred to by to the groups as the “Side By Side” concerts, finds the full military band under the direction of SAYWE and Ward leading the group of 13- to 21-year-old musicians, some of whom have gone on to serve in the Armed Forces.
“That’s an immediate effect [of this work],” Ward said. “This type of collaboration makes the kids better citizens, and helps families appreciate the military as well.”
When Nina McGrath, director of the Academy of Fine Arts at St. Philip’s College and of SAYWE, heard the 323rd was being disbanded, she encouraged colleagues, SAYWE supporters, and students to write leaders in Congress, urging them to save “Fort Sam’s Own” but was unsuccessful in overturning the decision.
“This 323rd band is so engaged, and they will no longer to be able to reach our community,” McGrath said. “This action feels like someone saying, ‘Your musical passion doesn’t matter.’ It is a disservice to our city, and we are being shortchanged.”
Lovers of military music, jazz, and other genres performed by the band have ample opportunities to enjoy “Fort Sam’s Own” before its members disperse. Its brass band is playing at Military Appreciation Night at the Aug. 23 San Antonio Missions game, which starts at 6:30 p.m. For the band’s full schedule of performances, click here.