Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Old Guard: Its Finest Hour by SFC William E. White, Jr.


On a normal day, the loudest thing in the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps building is a full Corps
rehearsal. Shrill fifes, thundering drums and blaring bugles, all playing at once, can be a quite formidable sound and tends to drown out anything else in the near vicinity. But the music of the Fife and Drum Corps was overpowered on the morning of September 11th by the sad, desperate screams of fire and police sirens.

Just an hour prior, much of the Corps had huddled around the TV in the day room to watch the endless replay of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Amazed as we were by what we
were watching, that amazement soon turned to disbelief as we watched, live on television, as a fireball erupted in the second tower. Not one of us watching was immune to the same questions that Americans across the country were asking themselves. What’s going on? Who’s doing this? This couldn’t be an accident.

But the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps did have a performance that day and so we pulled ourselves away from the TV, attempted to steady our spinning minds and go prepare to do our job. Soon the Corps was settled into a familiar routine of final rehearsal for a mission. Then word made it to the rehearsal hall: “They just hit the Pentagon.”

From that moment on, “routine” no longer existed for The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, or America. For years, the contingency mission of The Old Guard has been the defense of the national capitol region. Dozens of scenarios have been rehearsed, but no one ever anticipated something like what happened on September 11th. In all of the scenarios the Fife and Drum
Corps, like all Army bands, is tasked with rear support duties. In drills, this usually means that the Corps provides personnel to augment security at Regimental Headquarters, checking IDs and controlling access to the building. Within minutes of the news that the Pentagon had been struck, soldiers from the Fife and Drum Corps were on their way up the street to take up this task. The remainder of the Corps secured the Fife and Drum building and watched the tragedy unfolding on network television. For much of the Fife and Drum Corps, the reality of the situation and its possible ramifications soon hit home as the entire Corps gathered in the rehearsal hall again, but this time without instruments.

Instead of our familiar fifes,
bugles and drums, we gathered in the
rehearsal hall to receive some update
training on the use of our protective
masks. In the Fife and Drum Corps, for
the past 15 years, going to the field has
meant heading out to Summerall Field
or the Pentagon for another ceremony or
hopping on a bus to head off to Western
Pennsylvania for a Parade. By the end of
the day on September 11th, the Corps
was putting together newly issued TA-50,
retrained in the use of their gas masks
and looking more like a line company
than a musical element.
Over the next two weeks, we performed
more like a line company as
well. Occasionally, you might hear
someone in a practice room during their
“12-hours-off” shift, but mostly the
music stopped. All of the scheduled
performances were cancelled, including
Spirit of America, and the flow of new
requests dropped off completely.
Instead, the Corps fielded requests from
Regimental Headquarters to supplement
the line companies in their duties. And
with the same focus that is applied to
performing an arrival ceremony on the
White House lawn, the Fife and Drum
Corps attacked the new, and for us,
unusual duties to which we were called.
After the initial security detail at the
HQ building, the Corps provided NCOs
to the Military District of Washington
Emergency Operations Center to help
coordinate recovery efforts at the
Pentagon, as well as a platoon on standby
to dish out food to the troops working
at the Pentagon. Soon, however, the
Corps departed from the traditional support
role that Army bands fill. Two platoons
were dispatched to the Pentagon
for remains recovery, light labor and
security. After 24 hours of taskings at
the Pentagon, the musician-soldiers of
the Fife and Drum Corps began what
was to be their primary task for the next
10 days: augmenting the MPs at the
gates and other security points on Ft.
Myer. Searching cars and directing traffic
were only two of the many skills for
which the Corps traded in their instruments.
Once relief arrived from as far away as
Puerto Rico, the Fife and Drum Corps
returned to building 231 and the fifes,
drums and bugles that were left behind
on September 11th. Less than twelve
hours after the final MP augmentation
shift ended, the Fife and Drum Corps
was back on Summerall Field rehearsing
for a ceremony. For the first time in
nearly two weeks, the Corps was playing
music and marching drill and performing
the tasks that we train for on a daily
basis. That first rehearsal was rough.
Perhaps it was two weeks of not marching.
Perhaps it was two weeks of not
practicing. Perhaps the focus level was
dialed down one or two notches to make
room for the lingering doubts and fears
from the 11th. By the second go-round
for the rehearsal, however, the Corps was
back in fine form.
At his retirement ceremony on
November 15th, MSG Brian Pentony
summed up the feelings of the entire
Corps. MSG Pentony was the Snare-
Drum Group Leader for more than ten
years and served in the Fife and Drum
Corps for twenty years. In his remarks,
he had this to say, "I’ve performed in
Spirit of America since ’83, Inaugural
Parades for four Presidents, Tattoos and so
many other things. But the memory I will
cherish the most from my time here is
having been part of The Old Guard Fife
and Drum Corps at its finest hour. That
hour came on September 11th and the
days that followed.”

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