BAGHDAD — The sound of a banjo bounces out the door of the
coffee shop at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq. Before you know it, the familiar
tune of “Rocky Top” fills the air.
Every Sunday morning soldiers, airmen and marines make their
way to Green Beans Cafe for a cup of joe and a chance to escape the chaos of
living in a combat zone.
have lifted spirits among soldiers at the U.S. base.
A little more than a year ago, Southern Baptist chaplain
Jeff Houston and Lt. Col. Greg Rawlings, both with the XVIII Airborne from Fort
Bragg, N.C., discovered a mutual love for bluegrass and decided to start a
band. One by one they added instruments — first a banjo, then a mandolin, next
a bass and finally a fiddle. The Baghdad Bad Boys were born.
Rawlings, chief of Multi-National Corps-Iraq C3 Force
Management Division, said it all started with an opportunity to sit down with
other musicians and create music together. The group began meeting on Friday
evenings for a couple of hours in the mini-chapel at the MNC-I (Multi-National
Corps — Iraq) chaplain’s office.
The next thing they knew they were invited to entertain
patrons of Green Beans Cafe, the military’s version of Starbucks. Every Sunday,
they entertain the troops as they sip their lattés and cappuccinos with
bluegrass standards — “Rocky Top,” “Seven Bridges Road” and “Salty Dog Blues.”
For a couple of hours each week, the band and those around
them are transported out of the desert to a simpler time and place. Sitting in
the coffee shop, you’d never know that a combat zone is just 800 meters away,
where the enemy reminds the troops of their presence with an occasional mortar
“This is our therapy,” Rawlings said, only half-joking. “The
object is to knock the dust off our boots and go back to North Carolina for a
couple of hours.”
Houston calls it “a great time of fellowship. The few hours
we play together helps us get through the week.”
The group is always changing as individual deployments end
and new ones begin, the chaplain said. And new players are always welcome, from
beginners to virtuosos.
Houston started playing bluegrass at Southwest Baptist
University in Bolivar, Mo., where he studied music and religion. Before he
became a chaplain, Houston served 15 years as minister of music in several
Southern Baptist churches in Missouri.
“Every tour is different,” he said. “Some tours I may do a
lot of counseling sessions with soldiers. This tour I’ve been able to use music
as a ministry. The role God has guided me to is leading worship at our
Protestant chapel service.”
When Houston arrived at Camp Victory, the service had no
music, except for the occasional a cappella hymn. He was able to pull together
musicians and singers to help lead that congregation in worship.
Those four musicians, Chaplain Houston, Lt. Col. Rawlings,
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mike Charles and Maj. Steve Howell, make up The Righteous
Arm of the Baghdad Bad Boys. For more than a year the soothing sounds of
guitar, banjo and mandolin and familiar tunes have lifted spirits at Hope
A soldier recently stopped Houston in the chow hall and
said, “I’ve really been blessed each week to come and worship at Mayberry” — a
fitting reference to their distinct musical style.
“It’s been a great ministry experience,” Houston said. “The
stress of deployment puts you in a situation that taxes all of your resources —
physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. The challenge for soldiers is to keep
going through that long deployment.”
One of the chaplains’ roles is to help soldiers find avenues
to help focus their energy somewhere besides the war, like playing music.
“Meeting Lt. Col. Rawlings and playing music with him has
been a blessing to me,” Houston said. “Here’s a Southern Baptist layperson
who’s using his gifts to serve God during his deployment.”
Rawlings, a member of Beulah Hill Baptist Church in West
End, N.C., also studied music in college. “At 18, I thought I wanted to be a
minister of music,” Rawlings said.
But God had other plans. Rawlings entered the ROTC program
at Truett-McConnell College as a means to pay for school. The military training
stuck, and so did the music.
As the military moved Rawlings and his family from base to
base, God allowed him to use his gifts filling in as an assistant or minister
of music at churches without a full-time music minister. “God still gets it out
Back at the coffee shop, Staff Sgt. Johnny Alvarez switches
out harmonicas for the next tune. Rawlings, who plays guitar, banjo and
mandolin, was the one who discovered the young harmonica player.
“I walked out of my CHU (combat housing unit) one day and
heard a harmonica,” Rawlings said. “I looked over and there was Johnny playing
to the ducks.”
A quick study in bluegrass, Alvarez no longer plays for
waterfowl. He’s a full-fledged member of the B3.
Like most bluegrass musicians, their dream is to play at the
Grand Ole Opry someday.
Around the room, worn, dusty combat boots tap to the beat.
It might not be the Opry, but the audience at Camp Victory couldn’t be more
appreciative of their performance.
The Baghdad Bad Boys wind down their set with a rousing
version of “Rocky Top.” Folks join in on the chorus whether they’re from
Tennessee or not, each thinking of a place back home.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Pipes is editor of On Mission. The Baghdad Bad Boys performed together for the last time in Iraq on March 15. The group’s members began heading home in April. A reunion concert is planned for June 6 in Fayetteville.)