Scott Ball / Rivard Report
There’s a feeling of cautious optimism at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, home of the the 323rd Army Band. Despite media reports last month stating that the band was saved from deactivation, it is not yet as secure as some thought.
Last summer, the Department of the Army identified the venerable band nicknamed “Fort Sam’s Own” as one of many other military bands that will demobilize as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) larger effort to save money.
The 323rd Army Band was slated to make its final appearance at events this weekend for the Tricentennial's Military Appreciation events. But there is hope that the band will keep playing well into the future, according to the base’s public affairs office. For now, the 323rd has a full schedule through August.
The Department of the Army is re-evaluating its decision to deactivate the 323rd, but a final call has not yet been made, Patti Bielling, acting public affairs officer for U.S. Army North, told the Rivard Report Friday.
The San Antonio Express-News reported in April that Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, Army North commander, said he received word from the Army Department that the now 42-member band would not be deactivated. But Bielling confirmed that Army North had gotten ahead of itself in saying the band was saved. Work has gone into preserving the band, but the evaluation process is ongoing, she added.
Band members face scheduled transfers just like any soldier, so a key objective for the Army and Fort Sam is to find where potential future members of the 323rd could come from and where they would be living while stationed at Fort Sam, Bielling said.
“The Army must still find the required soldier billets [living quarters] to secure the future of the band,” Bielling said. “Until those positions are identified, the Department of the Army will not issue an order overturning the inactivation of the band.”
Buchanan told the Rivard Report via email that he was mistaken.
"I was wrong to say the Army had completed the process to keep the 323rd band because there is still work to do to identify where the [new] band members will come from," he wrote.
The 323rd maintains a busy schedule that averages 350 performances – or "missions," as personnel call them – each year around San Antonio and beyond.
The Fort Sam band also has smaller groups, including a brass band, a Latin ensemble, and a woodwind trio.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jonathan Ward, band commander, is hopeful the band can continue.
"I'm cautiously optimistic [the Army] will cut an order to keep the band here," he said.
The 323rd, like any other military band, performs in an array of settings, from military command changes, memorial services and graduations, to community events, such as Fiesta and functions at veterans' assembly halls.
A band helps to maintain troop morale, honor fallen warriors, and boost patriotism and community pride, Buchanan said.
“As the Army continues looking at options to fill the 323rd's ranks, I remain heartened by how much San Antonio residents love their Army band,” Buchanan wrote. “The band plays a critical role in connecting the Army to this community, and we will continue to strive to keep the 323rd active and at Fort Sam."
Having more than 40 musicians in the band at a time keeps it big enough to be a complete musical feature at events, but nimble enough to be broken up into smaller groups that can perform elsewhere during the same time period, Ward said.
While there's always personnel turnover at a military installation, the number of turnovers increases especially over the summer, particularly among parents who make schooling choices for their children. Ward expects the 323rd Band to dwindle in size over the summer.
"Over the next few weeks and months, we'll get smaller," he said. "As we lose people, we have no one to replace them."
Bielling followed up with the Army Department and, for now, the department has no information to release about sourcing options for the 323rd or when the Army will finish its evaluation process.
Ward said he hopes a decision is made soon so that the band has time to attract and add musicians. But he understands that preserving bands such as the 323rd could affect the status of military bands elsewhere.
"The decision to keep this band or another – there are sacrifices, too," he said.
In recent years, the DOD has sought ways to make its armed services more cost-effective. The 120-plus bands in the U.S. military have not been spared from these cost-cutting measures.
The number of military band musicians has gone down from nearly 7,200 in 2012 to about 6,600 in late 2017, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
The watchdog agency recommended the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force each formulate and introduce measurable objectives and performance metrics for bands.
Aside from military and community performances, the 323rd Army Band takes part in educational outreach activities in high schools and universities across Texas, and lends musical and moral support to Warrior Transition Units.
The history of Fort Sam’s Own goes back to 1942 when a group called Medical Field Service School Band was activated at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. The group was re-designated the 323rd Army Service Forces Band in 1944.
Two years later, the 323rd Army Band followed the southward shift of Army medical schools to San Antonio and Fort Sam Houston.
The musical group underwent a couple more re-designations before officially becoming the 323rd Army Band.
In addition to performances this weekend at Fort Sam and at the Alamo, band members will be part of the annual Armed Forces River Parade on May 19, as well as events in Houston, Boerne, and the usual official military activities.
Ward said he and fellow musicians are proud to be in a military band in a community that has the official moniker of Military City, USA.
"I'd hate not to be involved in this because it's something we are proud to be part of," he added.