Military Vets Working Hard as Roadies for Kiss

BRISTOW, VA -- Putting on a top-level rock n' roll show is a study in controlled chaos.  About twelve hours before the music starts dozens of tractor-trailers full of gear pull up to the loading dock behind the stage and the roadies get to work lugging speakers, light banks, custom scaffolding, pyrotechnics, and thousands of feet of cabling.  And the activity continues until the headliners leave the stage after the final encore and the crew loads everything back in the trucks and starts the trip through the night to the next stop on the tour where they get to start the process all over again.

The atmosphere is akin to that of a major military hub like Bagram or Kandahar where logistics carry the day and the team stands ready to deal with that unplanned hiccup that could bring everything to a standstill.

And on this day in the world of the rock band Kiss' 2014 tour that unplanned hiccup is the fact that the lighting rig -- a specially-designed apparatus that looks like a giant silver spider -- won't lift off of the stage and into the rafters like it's supposed to.

Among the crew dealing with the problem is a person used to those sorts of challenges as a function of her military experience.  Kayla Kelly spent four years in the Marine Corps as a field radio operator and is one of two military veterans brought aboard by Kiss and the opening act Def Leppard to work as roadies for this tour.

The other veteran is Bill Jones, who flew Chinooks in the Army and did combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kiss and Def Leppard jointly decided to hire the two for the 2014 tour (using Military.com/Monster's hiring process) while also honoring their military fans by partnering with the USO, Hiring Our Heroes, Project Resiliency/ Raven Drum Foundation (an effort developed by Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen), ID.me, the Wounded Warrior Project, and the Augusta Warrior Project.

"The idea in hiring heroes -- and these vets are heroes -- is not a publicity stunt," said Paul Stanley, painted in his signature "Starchild" makeup just before taking the stage.   "It's not a way for us to say, 'hey, look what we're doing.'  It's more to draw attention to the fact that we owe these people everything.  These people make freedom possible.  It's not the politicians. It's nobody behind a desk.  It's the people who volunteer to go overseas and protect this great country."

Jones' day starts early on tour, about 8:30 or so.  He assembles high-definition LED walls for the show (screens behind the stage).  There are 120 different sections to put up.  After that he builds the low-definition screens on either side of the stage.  Then he runs one of the main house cameras during the show.  When the performance is over, he tears it all down and loads the banks of screens and associated gear back in the trucks and rides through the night to the next town.

It's hard work but Jones is happy for it as his transition from military life wasn't easy, career-wise.

"Some of the challenges I faced were, number one, I was over-qualified," Jones said.  "Being a former helicopter pilot a lot of the companies said I was over-qualified and they couldn't pay me enough.  I had to resort to a part-time minimum wage job.  It was an income, working for the YMCA in middle Tennessee.  I loved my job, but it didn't pay very much." 

Jones explained he didn't have enough flight hours to get a job flying helicopters.  "I was about a grand short," he said, referring to the fact he needed 1,000 more flight hours to get an entry level flying job.

Kelly's road to rock n' roll was a bit smoother as she actually met the members of Kiss during an appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Show while she was working for NBC in New York -- her first job out of the Marine Corps.  That networking effort allowed her name to jump out at the band's organization during the hiring process for the roadie job.

So both vets are employed for the duration of this tour, but is it a career?

"I've been proving that my work ethic is sound, and the guys I've been working with video-wise are really impressed," Jones said.  "They're ready to offer me something."

"It's been fantastic," Marine vet Kelly said of the experience.  "It's not everything I thought, but it's pretty high up there."  She hopes to stay with the Kiss organization in some fashion after the 10-week tour is complete in late November of this year.

 "There should be an amendment to the Constitution:  If you risk your life for your country, you should be guaranteed a job," said Gene Simmons, also decked out backstage in his signature "Demon" makeup.  "We go out of our way to ensure that the military that marches under the proud Stars and Stripes understands that there are people who love and respect them."   When asked if being a rock n' roll roadie is akin to military life Jones replied, "Absolutely in every respect -- without the danger.  You're working as a team.  You're reliant on everybody else."

 "We've been doing this for forty years," Simmons added.  "There's a word we like to use:  Pride.  It's not unlike the military."   And two songs into the show, as if to prove Simmons' point, the crew demonstrates pride in working until the job is done right.  Paul Stanley announces the band has to leave the stage but urges the crowd to stay put.  Once the musicians are clear the previously malfunctioning metallic spider is lifted off the stage and into the overhead where it's supposed to be for the show.  A minute later, barely missing a beat, the band is back on stage and into the next song on the set list.

And backstage Kayla Kelly exhales and smiles.

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