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Drum and bugle members learn sound 'corps' values

Airmen with the 737th Training Group Drum & Bugle Corps march during the Air Force Basic Military Training graduation Oct. 1. (U.S. Air Force photo/Robbin Cresswell)

Airmen with the 737th Training Group Drum & Bugle Corps march during the Air Force Basic Military Training graduation Oct. 1. (U.S. Air Force photo/Robbin Cresswell)

Retired Master Sgt. Samuel Johnson directs the 737th Training Group Drum & Bugle Corps during an Air Force Basic Military Training graduation parade Oct. 1. (U.S. Air Force photo/Robbin Cresswell)

Retired Master Sgt. Samuel Johnson directs the 737th Training Group Drum & Bugle Corps during an Air Force Basic Military Training graduation parade Oct. 1. (U.S. Air Force photo/Robbin Cresswell)

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- When buses filled with young men and women come to a stop in front of Lackland AFB's Air Force Basic Military Training reception center three nights a week, an unexpected experience begins to unfold.

Lined up in the reception center's lobby, the trainees have their first encounter with a BMT military training instructor. Unknowingly, the new trainees to Lackland are introduced to one of the Air Force core values: Integrity first.

"I'm going to ask you one question and I need you to answer honestly. This is not a trick question," the MTI repeats to trainees in groups of 50 four or five times a night every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as they are assembled in the reception center's lobby.

"If at any point in your entire life you've played any kind of musical instrument, no matter what that instrument was, how long ago, how good or bad you think you were, I want you to raise your hand now."

As trainees' hands go up in response to the MTI's question, the selection process is underway for the 737th Training Group Drum & Bugle Corps.

When Master Sgt. Stephen Larson or Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Remley, the only two active-duty MTIs and band directors in the Air Force, have finished those three nights of screening, another group of trainees is lined up to fill the spots left by graduating trainees.

The corps is assigned to the 323rd Training Squadron. It is a constantly evolving brass and percussion group that performs at each BMT retreat and graduation parade on Thursdays and Fridays after four weeks of twice weekly rehearsals.

"The first point I try to make with trainees (after selection) is they may get a little bit overwhelmed because this is an extra duty in some respects," Sergeant Remley said. "I also make it a point for them to remember the second core value: Service before self.

"They can put the service, in this case providing musical support at graduation and retreat, above their own personal needs. That usually makes a lot of sense (to the trainees) and puts a reality on that core value," he added.

Corps members are required to meet the same academic, marching and training requirements as any BMT trainee. The rehearsal times to learn 10 songs average between two and three hours.

Seventh and eighth week trainees perform at retreat, graduation and occasional off base appearances, supplemented by selected fourth or fifth week musicians when the need arises.

A very select group performed during a San Antonio Spurs preseason game at the AT&T Center, a chance for the Air Force, BMT and the trainees to stand in the spotlight next to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

"We have opportunities (at off-base events) to use their talents not only to showcase the Air Force but to give these trainees an experience unlike anything else in BMT," Sergeant Larson said.

With the Drum & Bugle Corps' ever-changing mix created by trainees graduating every two weeks and new trainees arriving weekly, the opposite holds true for its leadership.

Director Samuel Johnson, a retired master sergeant, has been with the corps for 16 years, including 10 on active duty; Sergeant Larson, four years; and Sergeant Remley, one year. All have music education degrees and Air Force Band experience, which creates every opportunity for their students to succeed.

"It's fun and rewarding," Mr. Johnson said. "It's not just about the music because the majority aren't going to be professional musicians.

"You get to encourage them and give them a chance to smile -- this is a good place to be. It's about positive motivation and the team concept."

Lt. Col. Matthew Whiat, 323rd TRS commander, said the Drum & Bugle Corps makes a lasting impression during retreat and graduation ceremonies.

"There's something genuine and meaningful when thousands of families and friends hear America's newest Airmen play 'Stars and Stripes Forever,'" Colonel Whiat said. "It brings a sense of dignity and importance to a ceremony that truly warrants it.

"The directors don't just teach music. It's also a medium to reinforce the other important qualities that are taught in BMT," he added.

A group of trainees in their fourth week said it was a surprise when they arrived for BMT and were immediately asked about their musical talents. They admitted it took some time to realize what had transpired.

The trainees also agreed that being a member of the corps has been a positive experience.

"The best day was when all the sections were brought together in the third week," said Trainee Trevor Jones, with Trainee Ismael Otero quickly adding, "We felt like a band."

By the time those same trainees reach senior flight status in the seventh and eighth weeks, they will have exemplified the Air Force's core values. Integrity first upon arrival, service before self during training, and excellence in all we do with their music at retreat and graduation.

And it came from an unexpected beginning.