WASHINGTON – It’s rare for soldiers to serve in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, but it’s nearly unprecedented for one of those musicians to graduate from the Army’s rigorous Air Assault Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Earlier this year, Army Staff Sgt. William J. Parks, a 29-year-old fife instrumentalist, became the first corps musician in several years to earn the distinction.
“Air assault school has always really interested me, but I never thought I’d really get to go,” Parks said. “[It] has altered my outlook as a soldier in a ceremonial unit. The things I saw and experienced made me reassess how I view and enforce standards and training.”
The air assault school prepares soldiers for air mobile operations, including aircraft orientation and safety, aerial medical evacuation procedures, combat assault and hand and arm signals. During the course, students train and are evaluated on combat assault maneuvers, preparing sling loads, and myriad physical fitness and academic tests, including a 12-mile march and rappelling from an aircraft.
Preparing for Training
Knowing what was ahead, Park said, he spent weeks getting ready for the school, conducting consistent physical training sessions.
“I saw him really trying to prepare for the school,” said Master Sgt. Russell Smith, corps sergeant. “I think it was difficult because not a lot of soldiers here knew very much about the school.”
Students march, jog, crawl, climb and rappel a total of 24 miles throughout the course. Capt. Christopher M. Pegg, battalion training officer for the Army National Guard Training Center at Fort Benning, said the course requires students to complete physically demanding events, recover within a day or two, and then move on to the next course challenge.
Still, about 90 percent of those who attend the course graduate, Pegg said.
“Soldiers who show up in good cardiovascular shape are set up for success from the start,” he added. “Every physical event requires the soldier to be able to manipulate their own body weight over a prescribed distance. Soldiers who are strong runners and road marchers typically do well.”
A Different Army Experience
The opportunity for a fifer to attend the course was unique because of the corps’ busy performance schedule during the spring-through-fall seasons, when the musicians are providing ceremonial support across the United States, Smith said. As an official representative of the Army, the corps averages about 500 performances annually.
Parks said the air assault training gave him a chance to see and experience life at another Army installation and interact with soldiers from a variety of military occupational specialties.
“We don’t really get to see the Army outside of [Joint Base Myer-Henderson-Hall], unless we do a performance on another installation,” he said. “Because we don’t have the opportunity to deploy, one of the reasons I wanted to go to air assault school was to observe the line-unit soldiers, whom I may never get to meet or interact with otherwise.”
Fife and Drum Corps
Established on Feb. 23, 1960, the Fife and Drum Corps is one of the Army’s premier musical organizations. In support of the president, the corps performs at all armed forces arrival ceremonies at the White House for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. The unit has also participated in every U.S. presidential inaugural parade since President John F. Kennedy’s in 1961.
During the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon, fife and drum corps soldiers performed additional duties, ranging from serving as liaisons to the Army Military District of Washington’s Emergency Operations Center, to providing additional installation security and helping to establish command and control at the Pentagon attack site. Most notably, soe soldiers from the corps were part of the workforce that entered the Pentagon to remove the remains of those killed in the attack.
“I think the skills that I learned during this course are great to have and will be beneficial in any job or situation,” Parks said. “I may be a musician, but I am a soldier first.”