Soldiers find harmony in the dissonance of life in a combat
By Carol Pipes
The sound of a banjo tuning bounces out the door of the coffee house
at Camp Victory. Before you know it, the familiar tune of "Rocky Top" fills the
Every Sunday soldiers, airmen and marines make their way to Green
Beans Cafe for a Cup of Joe and a chance to escape the stress of living in a
When they first arrived in Iraq, Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Jeff
Houston and Army Lt. Col. Greg Rawlings, both with the XVIII Airborne out of
Fort Bragg, North Carolina, discovered a mutual love for bluegrass and decided
to start a band. They added instruments one-by-one—banjo, mandolin, bass and
finally a fiddle. The Baghdad Bad Boys were born.
Lt. Col. Rawlings, chief of Multi-National Corps–Iraq C3 Force
Management Division, said it all started with a chance to sit down with other
musicians and create music together. The group began meeting Friday evenings
for a couple of hours in the Mini-chapel at the MNC–I Chaplain’s
“It doesn’t matter where you are, bluegrass pickers just seem to
find each other and get together to play,” Greg says.
The next thing they knew they were invited to entertain patrons of
Green Beans Cafe, the military’s version of Starbucks. Every Sunday, they
entertain the troops as they sip their lattés and cappuccinos with bluegrass
standards—“Rocky Top,” “Seven Bridges Road” and “Salty Dog Blues.”
For a couple of hours each week, the band and those around them are
transported out of the desert to a simpler time and place. Sitting in the
coffee shop, you'd never know that 800 meters away lies a combat zone, where
mortar rounds still signal an enemy presence.
“This is our therapy,” says Rawlings, only half joking. “The
object is to knock the dust off our boots and go back to North Carolina for a
couple of hours.”
Says Houston: “We have a great time of fellowship.
The few hours we play together helps us get through the week.”
The group is always changing as individual deployments end and new
ones begin, Houston adds. New players are always welcome, from beginners to
Houston started playing bluegrass at Southwest Baptist University in
Bolivar, Missouri, where he studied music and religion. Before he became a
chaplain, Houston served 15 years as minister of music in several Southern
Baptist churches in Missouri. Houston’s musical background has served him well
in the Army.
“Every tour is different,” he says. “Some tours I may do a lot of
counseling sessions with soldiers. This tour I’ve been able to use music as a
ministry, the role God has guided me to is leading worship at our Protestant
When Houston arrived at Camp Victory, the service had no music,
accept for the occasional a cappella hymn. He was able to pull together
musicians and singers to help lead the congregation in worship.
Those four musicians, Chaplain Houston, Lt. Col. Rawlings, Army
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mike Charles and Army Maj. Steve Howell, make up The
Righteous Arm of the Baghdad Bad Boys. For more than a year the soothing sounds
of guitar, banjo and mandolin strumming out familiar tunes have lifted spirits
at Hope Chapel.
A soldier recently stopped Chaplain Houston in the chow hall and
said, “I’ve really been blessed each week to come and worship at Mayberry.” A
fitting reference to their distinct musical style.
“It’s been a great ministry experience,” says Houston. “The stress
of deployment puts you in a situation that taxes all of your
resources—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—the challenge for soldiers is
to keep going through that long deployment.”
One of the chaplains’ roles is to help soldiers find avenues to help
focus their energy somewhere besides the war. Avenues like playing
“Meeting Lt. Col. Rawlings and playing music with him has been a
blessing to me,” says Houston. “Here’s a Southern Baptist layperson who’s using
his gifts to serve God during his deployment.”
Rawlings, a member of Beulah Hill Baptist Church, in West End, North
Carolina, also studied music in college. “At 18, I thought I wanted to be a
minister of music,” says Rawlings. But God had other plans. Rawlings entered
the ROTC program at Truett-McConnell College as a means to pay for school. The
military training stuck, and so did the music.
As the military moved Rawlings and his family from base to base, God
has allowed him to use his gifts filling in as an assistant or minister of
music at churches without a full time music minister. “God still gets it out of
Back at the coffee shop, Rawlings switches from banjo to mandolin
for the next song.
Like most bluegrass musicians, their dream is to some day play at
the Grand Ole Opry.
Around the room, worn, dusty combat boots tap to the beat. It might
not be the Opry, but the audience at Camp Victory couldn’t be more appreciative
of their performance.
The Baghdad Bad Boys wind down their set with a rousing version of
“Rocky Top.” Folks join in on the chorus whether they’re from Tennessee or not,
each thinking of a place back home.
Carol Pipes is editor of On Mission.
Note: The Baghdad Bad Boys performed together for the last time in
Iraq on March 15. Chaplain Houston, stationed at Ft. Collins, Colorado, deploys
to Afghanistan in 2010.
Faith in the Sand – American soldiers in Iraq are not just
safeguarding freedom for others. They are also finding it for themselves. See
how God is using Southern Baptist chaplains to change lives in one of the most
difficult environments on earth. Download
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