Iraq is a little brighter for troops, thanks to Twin Cities band
Hudson business owner Andy Schuster of Schuster's music is a professional musician by trade. Last fall when he became the bassist for the Twin Cities-based rock band Catchpenny, he knew if it worked and he stayed with the band, he might be in for the trip of a lifetime.
The band is committed to providing entertainment for troops stationed in Iraq, and this spring Schuster traveled with the band for its eighth tour to Iraq. The two-week trip from April 4 to 17 found the band playing usually two shows a day on bases big and small.
The first stop for Schuster and the band was in Kuwait, where their documentation was processed and they played their first concert. After that, the group boarded a C-130 bound for Camp Balad Airbase 40 miles north of Baghdad.
"It was huge, the size of a small city with a huge military airport," said Schuster. "None of the structures are permanent. They are all supposed to be temporary."
The band played two shows there before they went on to the Victory Camp Base in Baghdad, which would be their primary location during the tour.
"We stayed in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces," said Schuster, whose room was around the corner from the salon, where Dan Rather interviewed Hussein. "It was just interesting; we did not really expect it."
After a day of settling in, they looked over the area within the base perimeter, including the Victory Over America Palace, construction of which was started after the 1988 war. The palace was never completed but it did contain a ballroom the size of a football field. From where the band was staying they could also see an amusement park they were told was created by Hussein for his grandchildren.
"From then on we were flying in Blackhawk helicopters," said Schuster. "In the morning we would load up so we could get to the smaller bases. Since we have less than a thousand pounds of gear we can go to places that normally don't get bands. They usually have comedians for entertainment. We are really portable." They usually played two shows a day. A couple of days the weather kept them grounded.
"I'd go back again. It was really cool," said Schuster. "At the time, we got to go places (forward bases) where they were not used to having fun. Once we got them loosened up, crowd surfing and trying to get them to come up front, they started to smile and have a good time." Catchpenny played for Army, Air Force and Marine personnel.
It was spring in Iraq, which meant it was in the 80's, dry and dusty.
"We had really tight scheduling," said Schuster. When they weren't doing a show they were scheduled for meet-and-greets with dozens of people. They were introduced to many different units, each one sharing with band members what they do while they are deployed, from construction units to combat simulators and infrared detection equipment.
They also crossed paths with members of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski team, who were on a "heavy medal" tour, visiting with troops and showing them their Olympic gold and silver medals.
Food was generally good on the larger bases and Schuster was amazed at the pallets of water bottles everywhere.
"Dehydration is a big problem over there," said Schuster. "The stockpile of water seemed to go on for miles." Even though Schuster experienced a brief bout of illness while he was there he is ready to go back.
"It definitely gave me a lot of respect and a deeper understanding for the service personnel," said Schuster, who said it wasn't uncommon to hear explosions a couple of times a day.
No matter where the band played, the landscape was T-walls, segmented concrete walls which provided a barrier to the outside.
"Our last show was cancelled because the base we were going to was under attack," said Schuster. "The endurance of these folks to be there for years and to go back for multiple deployments is amazing."
"I would like to go back," said Schuster. "It was a great experience. To be able to do these trips as a bassist..."
The band returned safely after detouring through Turkey due to the Icelandic volcano eruption.
For more information about the band, and a brief video compiled from previous trips to Iraq, visit www.catchpennyband.com.