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Back From Iraq, Marine Band Will Lead Big Parade

Musicians who served in Mideast are to be a key part of Oceanside celebration for troops' homecoming. A crowd of 80,000 is expected.

October 24, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

OCEANSIDE — On New Year's Day, they marched in the Rose Parade playing John Philip Sousa's Semper Fidelis and other tunes.

Weeks later, and half a world away, they had a wholly different task, using M-16s to provide perimeter protection for combat troops pushing toward Baghdad.

And on Saturday, the 1st Marine Division band will be back, leading a civic "Defenders of Freedom" parade -- touted as the nation's largest parade to honor troops returning from Iraq.

Starting at 10 a.m., 10,000 troops from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton will march a 1.5-mile route through downtown Oceanside as part of a daylong celebration complete with food, confetti cannons, entertainment and a display of military hardware. Organizers are expecting a crowd approaching 80,000.

For the band, the parade represents the completion of a circle, a musical homecoming.

In Kuwait and Iraq, band members learned that handling an M-16 or a .50-caliber machine gun, as illogical as it may seem, isn't much different than finessing a musical instrument.

"It's the same kind of thing: muscle memory," said Cpl. Marcus Hosler, a drummer. "Once you know how to do it, your body reacts." There are no exceptions to the Marine motto of "every Marine a rifleman."

Even though many of the musicians enlisted in the Corps for the chance to play in the band, all are required to stay proficient on the firing range.

"We can go from clarinets to M-16s in a heartbeat," said Chief Warrant Officer Mike Edmonson, who serves as officer in charge of the band and sometime conductor.

As Marines surged across the Kuwaiti border and began the trek to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, band members stood guard day and night through sandstorms, rain and oppressive heat at a series of ad hoc encampments, often in areas thick with Iraqi snipers.

In Baghdad, band members guarded U.S. troops camped at a former Iraqi secret police headquarters.

Only after major combat operations were declared over were the musical instruments unpacked for open-air concerts of patriotic songs, show tunes and Dixieland jazz.

"We were security but then we moved into morale," said Staff Sgt. Kenneth Douglas, a trombone player.

Other bands were also deployed, but none moved as closely with front-line troops as the 1st Marine Division band. The 3rd Marine Air Wing band remained in Kuwait, and Royal Navy band members were deployed as stretcher-bearers aboard a British hospital ship.

The return to music-playing was welcome after the arduous drive toward Hussein's capital.

"The music was always in our hearts," said Gunnery Sgt. Yaphet Jones, a trumpet player and former Marine Corps noncommissioned officer musician of the year.

Still, there was a transformation process in laying down their rifles and picking up their musical instruments.

"It felt weird at first," said Cpl. Jason King, a tuba player. "My shoulder wasn't used to it."

Saturday's parade, which required weeks of planning, will include two other Marine Corps bands, a flyover of Marine helicopters, and an appearance by Marine-turned-actor Lee Ermey (the drill instructor in "Full Metal Jacket," and the host of "Mail Call" on the History Channel).

By coincidence, the parade is set for the same day that anti-war protesters are planning a demonstration in Washington that they say will be the biggest display yet of public opposition to the Bush administration's policy on Iraq.

In Oceanside, two "free-speech zones" have been established along the parade route for protesters.

For band members, the parade will be their first large-scale public performance since returning from Iraq in early June.

While they no longer are under orders to keep rifles nearby, band members have to adhere to the same readiness precautions as other Marines in the sprawling base.

At a rehearsal this week band members were required to keep their gas masks strapped to their hips.

"We're musical but with a flavor of tactical; this is gas-mask Wednesday," said bandmaster Master Gunnery Sgt. Steven R. Schweitzer, whose resume includes 26 years in the Corps, 17 Rose Parades and one war.

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