For Spc. Thomas Wilder, a 1998 Columbia High School graduate now in the Old Guard, the best part of the U.S. Army’s Spirit of America Show often comes at the end.
Veterans will come up and chat about their experiences in Vietnam, Korea or World War II. Families of veterans will also talk about their loved ones – some deployed, some departed.
Wilder has learned a lot about the military and the country’s history that way.
“It touches you a bit,” he said. “It gives you a lot of insight.”
The Spirit of America — an arena-sized patriotic show featuring music, battle re-enactments and military precision drills from some of the Army’s elite ceremonial units – begins today with free performances at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena.
It is the first time the show — which features The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the U.S. Army Band and the U.S. Army Drill Team — has performed in Columbia. Greensboro, N.C., was the only other city to host the show this year.
Because the Old Guard’s main job is protecting the nation’s capital, greeting foreign leaders, guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns and conducting funerals in Arlington National Cemetery, the show only goes to two cities each year. And it only plays on the East Coast. If there is an emergency in Washington, such as 9/11, the soldiers have to quickly return to their real jobs.
“This is very special,” said Ike McLeese, president and CEO of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce who serves as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. “This is another building block in our military community relationship.”
During the show, soldiers in historical uniforms re-enact key moments in the U.S. Army and American history. The re-enactments include battle scenes with short periods of simulated gunfire interspersed with performances by the U.S. Army Band – “Pershing’s Own” – and soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army.
Elements of The Old Guard — which also includes the Caisson Platoon, the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, the Continental Color Guard and the U.S. Army Drill Team — also perform precision drills.
And the show includes the personal stories of soldiers who, through the years, have answered the call to serve their country – all performed by active duty soldiers from the Military Department of Washington.
Wilder will perform as a Sgt. Hulka from the Vietnam War.
“He talks about his responsibility as a platoon leader,” he said.
Wilder is one of six South Carolinians in the show. The others are:
• Sgt. 1st Class William Linney of Columbia – Army Band
• Sgt. 1st Class Robert Aughtry of Gaffney – Army Band
• Pfc. Cole Davidson of Charleston – The Old Guard
• Spc. Garrett Hamilton of Easley – The Old Guard
• Master Sgt. Greg Lowery of Charleston – Army Band
The genesis of this year’s performance in Columbia came in 2011, when McLeese was among the packed houses watching the show in North Charleston Coliseum. During a reception, McLeese met Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, the two-star general who commands the Military District of Washington and invited him to stage the show in Columbia.
Linnington will attend each performance. Today he will be joined by about 5,600 students from area schools. On Saturday, Fort Jackson commander Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts will co-host the show, joined by 3,500 basic trainees from the post.
McLeese will represent the city at tonight’s performance.
“It’s one of the most fantastic shows I have ever seen,” he said. “I know everyone will thoroughly enjoy it.”