Sierra Vista — Hunched against the chilly winds that followed one of the summer’s first rainstorms, Sierra Vista residents gathered at Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday to witness the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Band play its final concert, signaling the end of a 141-year musical legacy at Fort Huachuca.
Although the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Band, also known as the 62nd Army Band, first received its orders to inactivate two years ago following broader government efforts to downsize military bands, it made the final concert no less emotional for participants and attendees, who were accustomed to hearing the strains of horn and drum at events both on and off Fort Huachuca.
“It breaks my heart,” said Saundra Engel, a veteran and Sierra Vista resident who attended the concert. “The fact that they’ve always been there for us makes us sad that they’re going away.”
The decision to inactivate the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Band resulted from an extensive analysis of the Army’s force structure, said Fort Huachuca officials. It is one of several longstanding bands that received orders to inactivate or downsize following recent government studies on the costs and functions of military bands.
While Army band funding has been the subject of congressional debate since the early 20th century, Arizona Republican Martha McSally spearheaded the most recent efforts to review military band structures in 2016. In her speech to the house, she criticized the half-billion dollars spent annually on military bands, stating that such funds would be better directed toward national defense. The approved amendment required the military to limit and review band activities.
Despite the cost of maintaining military bands, it is hard to put a price on the service they provide to the public, said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Charles Vollherbst. Vollherbst served as a percussionist from 1979-1985 at Fort Huachuca, when the resident band was the 36th Army Band.
“I think they really provide a connection to the American public that no other unit can do,” he said. “And the more bands we lose, the less of a connection we have.”
While Vollherbst, who lives in Virginia, was unable to attend the inactivation ceremony, other alumni band members traveled from as far away as Arkansas for a final performance in Sierra Vista. As the evening wore on and the clouds blew away to reveal a clear night sky, the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Band joined with both members of the local community band and alumni to play renditions of “Washington Post March,” “Stars and Stripes,” and “God Bless America.”
The concert included the ceremonial casement of the Army band’s flag, which will be sent to the Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., consigned to the past.
The casement marked the end of a long history. Army bands, along with the U.S. Army, predate the signing of Declaration of Independence. They were founded to support troops and raise morale, but their historical purposes have ranged from signaling cavalry charges to confusing enemy troops. While the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Band has only been at Fort Huachuca since 2011, there have been military bands stationed at the post since the 19th century, said band Commander Michael Jeffrey Moore during the ceremony.
As the inactivation of the Fort Huachuca band and others draws that legacy to a close, it also shrinks one of the biggest employers of professional musicians in the U.S., according to the U.S. Army Music Program website. The loss will be felt by the next generation of musicians, said Charles Vollherbst.
“I went from being a single guy out of college to having a family and deciding to stay in the Army,” said Vollherbst, who met his wife at a concert he performed in around 40 years ago. “It was a big jumping-off point for me, personally, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has that story.”
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Edward Leferink of Sierra Vista, who commanded the Fort Huachuca band from 1996 to 2006, also said that his conducting career led to multiple opportunities. They included performing with Bob Hope, marching in the inauguration ceremonies of multiple U.S. presidents, and playing the bugle at veterans’ funerals.
“It’s just gonna be a shortfall,” said Leferink. “Because when the band goes, the band’s gone.”
For Sierra Vista residents like Saundra Engel, who said she has always looked forward to their annual concerts at events like the Fourth of July, the inactivation leaves a hole in the community. While other bands in Arizona, such as the National Guard Band, will remain active, it won’t be the same, she said.
“We’ll just feel lost, because they won’t be there to play the music,” said Engel as she watched the band pack up their instruments for the last time.