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Band marches to different drumbeat in Iraq

30 Mar 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

One year ago Lance Cpl. Juan R. Galvez was deployed here as an electronics maintenance technician. This year he's back as a trombone player turned security guard with the 1st Marine Division Band.

The Houston, Texan and 35 of his fellow musical Marines left Camp Pendleton, Calif., almost two months ago for this Iraq to assist in the division's security and stabilization mission here.

Led by the band officer, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael W. Edmonson, the group's primary responsibility is to serve as the division's security element.

According to Edmonson, the band's role back home is to provide musical support to Camp Pendleton's tenet commands, but that mission shifts during times of conflict.

"Marine Corps bands have the secondary mission of serving as security when they are directed by higher headquarters," Edmonson said. "When the division deploys, so do we."

The band has performing its dual mission since the early 1940s.

Members of the 1st Marine Division Band, nicknamed "Pride of the Division," took an active part during World War II, where they functioned as stretcher bearers. Several decades later the musical troupe swapped instruments for rifles and headed to Southeast Asia as a security component during Operations Desert Shield and Storm.

In February 2003, the band returned to the region with rifles and heavy machineguns in hand for Operation Iraqi Freedom. When needed, the musicians also performed during ceremonies or "morale-boosting" concerts while overseas.

"This is nothing new for most of the Marines out here now," Edmonson explained.  "Almost half of them came out for the war last year and did the same thing."

The band is in charge of the camp's guard, which includes manning lookout towers, conducting patrols inside and outside the camp's perimeter, protecting convoys traveling within the area of operations and escorting third-country nationals who work here.

"We provide the commanders of the guard, sergeants of the guard and most of the Marines for the different posts," Edmonson added, who also holds the billet of guard officer. "Some of the guards are pulled from the division's different units to fill needed spots."

Providing such extensive security is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job.

Twenty-one-year-old Galvez explained that Marines are on duty every day for two four-hour shifts separated by eight hours of free time.

"I use my time off to eat, sleep, shower and do all my other personal stuff," Galvez said.

"Then when we're on duty we rotate the posts. Sometimes I get to go up in a tower. 
Other times I escort the workers or do the roving patrols."

He said his hectic schedule is not a burden because he is "just glad to be able to make sure the Marines and sailors living here have a safe place to work out of."

Turning the band into a combat-ready unit took place over the course of a few months.

"Before we came out here, the Marines attended heavy machinegun courses," said Gunnery Sgt. Yaphet K. Jones, the guard chief here.  "They also went to classes about, communications, patrolling, convoy operations and martial arts."

According to Jones, the Marines had little difficulty transforming into a provisional rifle unit because they carried with them a "combat mindset."

"The Marines pretty much knew what to expect when they came out here," he added. "They took all the training very seriously because they were eager to do a good job."

To add to the band's laundry list of duties while in Iraq, the unit is occasionally called upon to exhibit its musical abilities during ceremonies.

"We still have the capabilities to perform," Edmonson said. "In fact, as soon as our instruments arrived here, we had to play for the relief-in-place ceremony that took place a few weeks ago."

Plans are in the works for the band to put on shows for some of the upcoming holidays, to include Independence Day and Easter.

However, practice time is limited because of the demanding guard schedule.

"With all the years of practice we have, we don't need a lot of time to prepare for performances," Jones explained. "The Marines squeeze in time to practice during their time off."

The band is scheduled to rotate back to California around September but not before completing the mission at hand to the best of the unit's abilities.

"So far the Marines have done everything asked of them," Edmonson said. "They want to do well out here. As long as they remain disciplined and willing to work hard, I have no doubt
that they will do well."