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Singing For Uncle Sam

When one conjures images of a U.S. Army soldier these days, it rarely includes spotlights, choreography and a performance stage. Yet, for two women stationed at Fort Bragg, that’s just what being a U.S. Army soldier has been all about for the past year. Spc. Kathrine Schaefer and Sgt. Amber Jones have just completed duty as cast members of the 25th anniversary edition of the U.S. Army Soldier Show, which sent them on a eight-month, worldwide tour that began in April and concluded where it started, in Fort Belvoir, Va., on Nov. 11.

Schaefer, who was born on Fort Bragg and grew up playing instruments (flute, piccolo, oboe and clarinet), received Army training as a musician. She was a member of the 440th Army Band, attached to the N.C. Army National Guard, when she submitted a video audition tape for the show in December 2007. She did so in spite of the fact that she was terrified of being on stage.

“Total stage fright,” she said, “but I loved traveling.”

Jones, who was born and raised in upstate New York, joined the Army with some civilian experience as a skydiver, so she opted for Army training as a parachute rigger. As it turned out, it was a duty she never actually performed. When she forwarded her audition video, she was a member of the Honor Guard of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. Prior to joining the Army, she earned a full track and field athletic scholarship from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s discus champion in 1998.

“I got involved with stage and theater very young,” she said. She even pursued a performance degree at UNC. But in her audition video, she cautioned judges that while she was “capable of carrying a tune, vocals were not (her) strong suit,” so she tried out as a dancer.

In early 2008, both women were informed that they had been selected for further auditioning at Fort Belvoir, and by mid-February, they were in Virginia undergoing an American Idol-like experience. But instead of the acerbic Simon Cowell, they had drill sergeants, standard two-mile training exercises and a work schedule that stretched from 5 a.m. to midnight. In many ways, the Army approached the audition process the same way it approaches training soldiers in any other field.

“I mean, they are grilling you 24 hours a day,” Schaefer said. “They’d hand you a piece (of) music one day and tell you to learn it by tomorrow.”

“I didn’t expect that,” Jones said. “One by one, you get up there to do one or two pieces and after each performance, quite literally, like American Idol, there’s an artistic director like Simon who gives you bad news, bad news, bad news and then, more bad news.”

Along with 12 others – six men and six women – Schaefer and Jones were selected as cast members and it was off to six weeks of rehearsal. And then the real work began.

The show wasn’t just about singing and dancing; performers were expected to load, offload, assemble and, after every show, dismantle 18 tons of equipment at each stop on the tour. They handled more than one million pounds of electrical, sound, stage and lighting gear, and when it was all loaded back up after a show, they’d climb onto the tour bus headed for the next stop.

This summer, the show closed on a Saturday night in Minnesota and by Tuesday, they were rockin’ and rollin’ in Alabama.

In five days, the cast went from a show at Fort Hamilton, N.Y., to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe facility in Mons, Belgium. They didn’t have to ride the bus over the Atlantic, of course, but for the next three weeks, it was back to a bus for performances in 14 European venues, from the Netherlands to Vicenza, Italy. Five days after they’d taken their bows in Vicenza, they were back home, putting on a show in Georgia.

“Most people don’t realize what these tours entail,” Jones said. “It’s not about singing and dancing on the Army’s dime. It is by no means a gravy train.”

While it’s easy to understand the benefit of the Army Soldier Show to soldiers and families in duty stations all over the world, the performing soldiers themselves are often subject to questions regarding how a staged re-creation of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for example, is related to the serious business of defending these United States of America.

But the U.S. Army Soldier Show – entertainment for the soldier, by the soldier – is rooted in tradition. It was established during World War I by none other than Sgt. Israel Beilin, a Russian immigrant soon to become better known as Irving Berlin. He conceived and directed the very first Army Show – “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” – on Broadway in 1918. Berlin went on to re-invent, write, direct and produce a Broadway version during World War II, under the title, “This is the Army.” The 1943 film version of this production featured military cast members Ronald Reagan, Gene Kelly and Joe Lewis.

The 25th anniversary marks the modern-day show that originated in 1983. For Schaefer and Jones, it was an experience they will never forget, not just because they were able to travel and tour all over the United States and Europe, but because in a very real way, it made them both better soldiers.

“I’m going to go back (on the 2009 tour) as a lighting technician,” Schaefer said, adding that when her “run” with the show comes to a close, she will likely remain in the Army and pursue a desire to become a part of what she describes as the Army band – the U.S. Army Band known as “Pershing’s Own.”

Jones will not be back for this year’s tour. She is in the process of leaving the Army and has been accepted at the State University of New York, where she will pursue a law degree and, depending on how things turn out, eventually return to the Army as an officer.

For now, she remains in something akin to awe about her stint with the U.S. Army show.

“I hate to say things like this because it seems so typical, but it’s no cliché,” she said. “The 10 or 15 minutes after the show, when we’d be out there shaking hands with people as they left and autographing programs for the children, (that) was the sole thing that motivated me throughout the tour.

“The comments, the faces,” she added. “When you realize what it is that you’re doing, that you’re performing for soldiers’ wives and families whose morale is sometimes at the breaking point and you hear them say things like, ‘We really needed this,’ or ‘It meant the world to me.’

“You become more in touch with being a soldier,” Jones said. “You think, at first, that you’re breaking away, but you interact with families, with the greater Army community, and you become more in touch with that. I don’t think if I’d been a rigger, and lived in my own little bubble on a post somewhere, that I would have developed that sense of what being a soldier really means.

“It was one of the most fulfilling things that I have ever done.”