Drum corps and the military have history

by Greg Jewell, DCW staff

When a person puts on a uniform, there seems to be a transformation that changes that person. A sense of pride, discipline and confidence is present that usually wasn’t there before.

Forth-two years ago, when I first put on the midnight blue cadet jacket of the Argonne Rebels, little did I realize I would be wearing some type of uniform for the next eight years.

My name is Greg Jewell and these thoughts occurred to me often along the way and I want to share them with you. It is not necessarily the specific uniform you wear, but what it symbolizes and how it is viewed by others.

When I first joined Argonne, I was a rookie in every sense of the word. A friend talked me into it and I had never even seen a drum corps prior to my first show. However, it did not take long for me to learn what that uniform meant to this small Kansas community of 20,000 people and indeed the rest of this new world I was being introduced to.

All my new friends instantly accepted me as part of their “family.” My race, sex, family income or any other personal traits made no difference. This “family” I remain part of even today. I didn’t realize at the time, but as years passed and I met others who were part of the drum corps family — in Anaheim, Seattle, Belleville, Hutchinson — the comaraderie in this activity was extraordinary.

The other uniform I wore following my years in the corps was that of the U.S. Navy. Although the meaning of this uniform was much more serious and far-reaching, the same effect of putting on that blue uniform was similar. When you’ve marched in a drum corps for several years, some find it difficult to give it up. I was one of those. Life and circumstances dictated the move.

It is important to set the scene of America in 1971. First of all, drum corps had military roots and was still governed by two military veterans organizations, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. These groups sponsored the championships. DCI did not exist.

At every championship show — state and national — each member of every corps would be subjected to a rigorous inspection. A piece of lent on your jacket or a poorly-polished shoe would count against your corps’ final score. These Legion or VFW inspectors took their jobs very seriously. Championships could be won or lost as a result of the dreaded inspection.

After leaving the corps and going to boot camp, I always felt I had a big advantage over my fellow recruits. They could have told me to march for miles or yell at me all they wanted. I was used to it.

The Viet Nam war was raging during this time. A military draft was being conducted. Unless you were in college or had some other deferment, you stood a good chance of being drafted into the Army. The war and draft were controversial, and that is an understatement. Sadly, the military uniform and those who wore it were many times the victims of slurs. This is still hard to believe, but true.

While serving overseas, I quickly found that those who marched in drum corps seemed to find each other wherever they happened to be stationed. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I spent some time in Long Beach, CA, where my ship was docked for several months. To get my drum corps fix, I used to drive out to Orange County and watch rehearsals of the Anaheim Kingsmen. One day we welcomed a group of new sailors on our ship. I was asked to take them to the base store. While I was waiting for them to finish their shopping, a young man approached me and asked me if I had heard of the Kingsmen.

To this day, I’m still amazed at the coincidence of that encounter. After I gave him a surprised look, I told him I was going to their rehearsal that evening and asked if he would like to ride along. His name was Joe Cybulski from Irving, NJ, and he had marched in the Philadelphia PAL Cadets. We became instant friends.

My ship, the USS Okinawa, carried 1,500 Marines. While we were docked in Subic Bay, Philippines, I was on watch one day. On the dock below, a group of new Marines were waiting to board the ship. We would be taking them to the battle in Viet Nam.

I noticed one of the guys with drum sticks, pounding away on his sea bag. No question in my mind, he was a drum corps vet. At least he wasn’t pounding on the back of my bus seat. I went down and asked him what corps he had marched with and the astonished percussionist said with a grin, the Blue Stars.

Anyone who has served in our Armed Forces knows that your world instantly changes. Some adapt better than others. I always felt like my drum corps years prepared me for the new life. The new environment, the new people and homesickness are part of this transition. If you are sent to a war zone, these changes intensify.

Why am I sharing these stories after all these years? Recently I was checking out some corps Web sites and read a story about a former member of the Blue Stars. Andy Toppin, who marched in the Blue Stars from 2005 to 2007, was critically injured during a military police mission in Iraq. He is being treated for severe burns to his arms and face at Landstuhl Region Medical Center in Germany. His injuries have required a partial amputation of his right leg.

Andy and his wife Ashley, also a veteran of the Blue Stars, are expecting their first child. He is a member of our drum corps family. He traded his drum corps uniform for a military uniform and he volunteered for both organizations. Now, he and his family need a little help. I would invite you to check out the www.Blue Stars.org Web site if you would like to help.

I know there are many more stories like these. We would like to hear them. If you have stories to share of drum corps/military members serving around the world, let us know. E-mail publisher@drumcorpsworld.com and Steve will forward them to me for future articles.

Our thoughts should always be with our men and women of the Armed Forces because they are part of our family!