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Marching to a unique beat: the versatile 42R

U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the 56th Army Band take a photo at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo credit: Spc. Elizabeth MacPherson

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD - When picturing the U.S. Army, the first image that comes to mind usually is not soldiers mesmerizing crowds with the sweet razzle-dazzle of tubas, drums, or trumpets, but that's exactly what the proud members of the 56th Army Band do as 42 Romeos (42R).

42R, or Army Bandsman, is not the most well-known Military Occupational Specialty (MOS).

"People hear ‘soldier' and they're picturing combat arms," said Staff. Sgt. Anthony Martinez. Martinez has been an Army musician for the entirety of his 12-year military career and currently serves as a squad leader of the 56th's brass section. "Combat arms- infantry- obviously is important, but they need support too. You've got, you know- the cooks, the mechanics. And you've got musicians. It's a community."

The journey to become a 42R kicks off with a rigorous audition process with an Army band recruiter. This involves performing a prepared musical piece, allowing the recruiter to assess the candidate's musical proficiency. If accepted, the candidate embarks on the path familiar to all soldiers - Basic Combat Training.

What sets the 42R apart is the next step, their Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at the Army School of Music. This 10-week program molds musicians into performers who seamlessly blend Army customs and courtesies with musical prowess. The MOS naturally attracts individuals with a passion for music who often have prior musical training before enlisting. Since their extra qualifications are highly valued, one distinctive aspect of the 42R MOS is that from day one, regardless of educational background, soldiers are designated the rank of specialist.

"They receive higher pay right from the start," said Martinez.

The 56th Army Band regularly takes their talents beyond the base, teaming up with concert bands, performing at holiday events, entertaining at nursing homes, or engaging with local schools. For 42Rs, their role goes beyond putting on a great show. Their performances boost soldier morale, or connect the Army with the surrounding community, fostering a sense of unity.

"My favorite concerts that we do (are the) Month of the Military Child," said Sgt. Quinn Connelly, a tuba player. "(We go) to all the schools here around JBLM and play for all of the kids, and the kids are always the best audience. They show up, they're having fun, they're dancing, and it really brings out the performer in me."

Spc. Willis Dotson not only plays trumpet but performs bugle calls, including "Taps" and salutes to the flag. One of his most memorable missions was playing "Taps" at Tahoma National Cemetery during a funeral, where he had the solemn honor of paying tribute to a fallen hero.

"It meant a lot to see everybody there and to honor the person. It was deeply impactful for me," he reflected. Dotson said opportunities as an Army musician are unparalleled to what the civilian world offered. "You might be trained to be an orchestral musician or a jazz musician, but you're going to be playing here more than anywhere else," he said.

Martinez agreed, voicing that the U.S. Army as a single entity employs more musicians than corporations, orchestras, or entertainment venues, creating truly unique opportunities. For him, memorable missions included playing for then-President Barack Obama, and participating in a joint exercise with Australian Army musicians.

"The Army has taken me around the world," Martinez said. His impact has reached beyond English-speaking countries, as well. "Music is the universal language," said Martinez. "Army linguists are important but when they finish school, they use just their studied language. With music, the language is the emotions you evoke. Everybody understands emotions."

Music also serves as a powerful tool to connect their fellow soldiers overseas to home.

"When we deploy, we do the exact same thing we do here," said Martinez. "But it's a little more impactful because you're doing it for troops downrange who are away from their families."

Songs that are well-known stateside, such as Toto's "Africa," a personal favorite of Martinez, remind soldiers of what they listen to back home. Hearing the same popular songs, "[It] kind of connects them; for a moment, it brings them back again," said Martinez.

42R might not boast the widespread recognition of other military specialties, but its profound impact on troop morale and community relations cannot be overstated. It's a sentiment that resonates with many Army musicians who make up the 42R MOS.

42R is a testament to the U.S. Army's reliance on diverse talents to accomplish its mission.

"Serving as an Army musician - sure, it's a 9 to 5 job that pays really well," Martinez said, "but what I really get from it is a sense that what I do has meaning."

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