Veterans Find New Mission in Music
Singing soldiers serve as ambassadors of U.S. military
Songs about God, country, sacrifice and family take on a new dimension when the four singers of 4TROOPS—wearing combat boots and fatigues-style clothing—take the stage to share their stories in music and words.
"We are all combat veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan," says former U.S. Army Sgt. David Clemo, a third-generation soldier and the groups tenor, introducing his comrades during a spring performance at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Va. "And today we've come together for a new mission, which is to honor service members and their families and all of their sacrifices through our music."
And yes, these former soldiers can sing. In fact, their seamless and stirring harmonies exude such emotion that Sony Masterworks executives, after hearing the crooning quartet during rehearsals last December in New York, signed the group on the spot. Their 4TROOPS debut album, released in May, features uplifting and patriotic pop and country songs. Fifty cents from the sale of each CD benefits veterans organizations.
"In this business, you get excited when youre on the cusp of something that's unique and special and no one's heard before," says Grammy Award-winning producer Frank Filipetti, 61, who produced the groups album. "All four members of 4TROOPS are uniquely talented individuals who are not only wonderful singers but wonderful people."
Clemo, 31, of Mount Vernon, Wash., served on the front lines in Afghanistan, where he provided communications and logistical support for the 18th Airborne Corps. He also completed a one-year tour of Iraq in 2005 and finished eight years of military service in 2008.
Former Sgt. Daniel Jens, 36, of Milwaukee, Wis., enlisted in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Before leaving the service in January, he was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and deployed for 15 months to Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division.
Former Capt. Meredith Melcher, 29, of Oakton, Va., served as an ambulance platoon leader in 2003 in Iraq, evacuating hundreds of American and Iraqi casualties and establishing the first U.S. Army medical clinics in Iraq. The daughter of a retired three-star general, she completed four years of service in 2006.
Retired Staff Sgt. Ron D. Henry, 41, of Williamsburg, Va., left the Army in 2008 after 20 years of service. Deployed with the 101st Airborne Division in 2003 and 2004, he was a transport manager traveling dangerous roads in Iraq.
While not recruited by the Army for their voices, each soldier frequently used his or her musical talents in military settings, singing at chaplain services, Army shows and memorial services.
"I've sung at so many memorial services, I've lost count," says Henry, a baritone. "Music is very spiritual. It soothes, it comforts, celebrates, heals, encourages, uplifts."
While deployed in Iraq, Jens often grabbed a guitar and jammed on his bunk after completing a mission. "I'd sing anything from rock to inspirational to pop to gospel," he recalls. "It seemed to boost everyone's morale, and I'd see the stress of being in danger just melt off of people's faces."
Melcher believes each member's combat experience brings raw emotion to the groups performances—whether singing about the pain of separation from family with the Lonestar hit "I'm Already There" or delivering a patriotic battle cry in a slightly modified version of Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."
"Our military experiences give us credibility and authenticity to sing these songs," the quartet's alto-soprano says. "People respect that we're singing about what we know."
The group formed late last year after Sony approached Victor Hurtado, a military veteran who is the artistic director of Army Entertainment, seeking an inspirational musical act comprised of active-duty troops or veterans. Hurtado handpicked the foursome—not only based on their vocal abilities but on their personal qualities, which make them strong ambassadors for the U.S. military.
Filipetti marveled that the singing soldiers, who never had performed together as a group, blended their voices and personalities so quickly. "Only months earlier, some of these singers were in a desert or on a mountain in the Middle East, says Filipetti," of West Nyack, N.Y. "They're not professional singers, but their performances and harmony are amazing."
The group's recruiter was not surprised, however. "Troops are accustomed to being moved around frequently, but their mission—to work as a team toward a common goal—never changes," says Hurtado, 46. "When these four came together, they just adjusted to their new mission, which is to use music to inspire and raise the morale of America. And that is what they are doing."