Chaplain, band create harmony in war zone
Carol Pipes, Baptist Press
May 11, 2009

Chaplain, band create harmony in war zone

Chaplain, band create harmony in war zone
Carol Pipes, Baptist Press
May 11, 2009

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.

Photo by Carol Pipes

From left, Chaplain Mike Charles, Maj. Steve Howell, Chaplain Jeff Houston and Lt. Col. Greg Rawlings make up The Righteous Arm of the Baghdad Bad Boys at Camp Victory’s Hope Chapel. For more than a year the soothing sounds of guitar, banjo and mandolin

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.

Photo by Carol Pipes

Lt. Col. Greg Rawlings, right, banjo picker and co-founder of the Baghdad Bad Boys, first heard harmonica player Staff Sgt. Johnny Alvarez playing to the ducks around the lake at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq.

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.”

Photo by Carol Pipes

Every Sunday, the Baghdad Bad Boys entertain the troops as they sip their lattés and cappuccinos listening to bluegrass standards such as “Rocky Top” and “Salty Dog Blues” at the Green Beans Coffee Shop at Camp Victory in Iraq.

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

of me.”

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.)