Some members of the military deployed to war zones don't carry a weapon. They're armed only with a clarinet, a violin, or maybe a guitar. These are the military musicians who come to entertain and boost the morale of soldiers, Marines and airmen on the front lines. As NPR's Gail Wein reports, they face logistical challenges and appreciative audiences.

GAIL WEIN: Since shortly after the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, the Air Force has been deploying musicians to the front to entertain the service people stationed there.

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WEIN: Chief Master Sergeant Marcy Hiro(ph) performed this summer with the band Wild Blue Country, which is part of the Air Force Academy band. While singing for troops in Afghanistan, their make-shift concert hall came under attack.

Sergeant MARCY HIRO (Member, Wild Blue Country): Rockets hit the base twice while we were there. We hit the dirt, did exactly what they did and saw what they had to live with each and felt that fear of having no control over the situation.

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WEIN: When an attack is underway, it doesn't really matter whether you're holding a bass guitar or a rifle. Master Sergeant Jerome Odo(ph) was also deployed with Wild Blue Country this summer.

Sergeant JEROME ODO (Member, Wild Blue Country): It was definitely different than most other tours that we do. Obviously we were over in a war zone. We're all one team, and whether it be terrorists or whoever, they view us as American soldiers when they're lobbing rockets or stuff like that our way.

WEIN: Wild Blue Country plays a wide range of rock, R&B, country covers and originals, keeping in mind what music will resonate with their audience.

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WEIN: Other ensembles play the kind of ceremonial band music that you'd expect to hear from players in military uniforms.

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WEIN: But there are also groups that do smooth jazz.

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WEIN: And funk.

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WEIN: There are also choirs in orchestras. Each branch of the service has their own collection of musicians, and each slot is a coveted full-time gig, complete with benefits. Keen competition for the jobs assures the military ends up with top-notch players; that is, when music-school grads find out about them.

Sergeant RYAN CARSON (Member, Max Impact): I had no idea that there was even a band program in the Air Force until I was a senior in college wondering, hmm, what am I going to do with this music degree? And then all of a sudden I saw an audition and I said I did not even know that existed.

WEIN: Even though Master Sergeant Ryan Carson's father was a chief master sergeant in the Air Force. The younger Carson sings with Max Impact, a rock and roll band that's part of the U.S. Air Force Band at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.

Sgt. CARSON: Growing up in the Air Force, I think I had an understanding of what to expect and should it come down to it, what my responsibilities would be. I know that I'm not a war fighter, but I know that in my job, I support the war fighter. We're humble servants to the war fighter in our career field.

WEIN: But the musicians still have to go through basic training, and Sergeant Odo says they also had additional training before they were deployed.

Sgt. ODO: It was not as rigorous as boot camp, but it was more of a refresher. Everybody went through weapons training, both on the M-16 and the M-9, which are the rifle and the pistol. We all got chemical warfare training. We learned out to protect ourselves from a chemical attack. Everybody was trained, ready to go, and we just were thankful that we never got put in that situation where we needed to use it.

WEIN: The musicians of Wild Blue Country were offered weapons but declined them, although in other instances band members have been armed for their deployment. The musicians needed to be extremely flexible. In the combat zones, any room, tent, field or mess hall would quickly be transformed into a concert stage.

Sgt. ODO: We were kind of like a Swiss army knife when it came to any gig that we would show up at. We would play all hours of the day and night. Sometimes we would fly at night, and then we'd set up at 1:00 a.m. in the morning and play for the folks on the flight line who couldn't come to our show the next night because they were working a 12-hour shift.

WEIN: Chief Marcy Hiro.

Sgt. HIRO: We would get off the plane and go right to the hospital, and we would do an acoustics show with perhaps just one guitar, no microphones, and we walk around and we just sing for the patients.

WEIN: Then they'd go to their next gig.

Sgt. HIRO: In a given day, we would have done about four different shows out different settings.

WEIN: And that poses other logistical problems, for the guitar players, especially. It means going unplugged. Sergeant Carson of Max Impact says they have a fully amplified setup.

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WEIN: And also a light and lean arrangement.

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Sgt. CARSON: There's nothing like trying to play Metallica on acoustic guitars and a box drum, basically, that our drummer just sits on and just kind of hits with his thumbs. But it still rocks regardless because we're Max Impact.

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Sgt. CARSON: My military career has enabled me to perform everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the White House to across the continental United States, across the world. But some of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had in my entire musical career, not only just military but civilian as well, was performing for those troops that are deployed.

WEIN: Carson was with another Air Force band, High Flight, when they entertained forward troops several years ago. The five members of Max Impact will be deployed to war zones around the world in the spring. Gail Wein, NPR News.

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