Before the battle scenes, patriotic songs and precision drill teams took center stage Friday at the U.S. Army’s Spirit of America show at Colonial Life Arena, there was a moment of silence in remembrance of prisoners of war and those missing in action.
Most of the thousands of people in the stands probably didn’t know that it was POW/MIA Recognition Day. But Dan Brown of Columbia, an Army medic during the Vietnam War, knew all too well the significance of the occasion.
He came to the show as a tribute to the more than 58,000 U.S. personnel killed in Vietnam and the more than 1,700 who are still missing.
“We lost a lot of buddies there, a lot of friends,” Brown, 68, said during the intermission of the 2-hour show. “The show brings back memories of the camaraderie we had between the guys.”
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Spirit of America is a unique multi-media show that is performed by 300 active duty solders from the Military District of Washington. It’s performed in only two cities a year — this year in Columbia and Greensboro, N.C.
And it’s free.
The show tracks the history of the Army and America from the Revolution to Afghanistan.
The soldiers sing. They recite the stories of individual soldiers. They perform re-enactments and drills.
And one member of the U.S. Army Band – Pershing’s Own — introduces the Vietnam segment with a screaming, Hendrix-esque version of America the Beautiful. There’s plenty of rock in the house.
“The music was my favorite part,” said Liza Powers, 14, a freshman at Airport High School in West Columbia, one of about 5,600 students who were bused in for the morning performance. “And I liked the pictures. I want to learn more.”
The show features elements of the Old Guard — the elite regiment that guards the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery and performs for arriving foreign dignitaries and other ceremonial occasions. Some of the elements within the regiment are The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps in their colonial uniforms, the U.S. Army Band and the rifle-flinging U.S. Army Drill Team.
Spc. Christopher Borden, 24, of Oakland, Calif., plays a Confederate soldier from the Civil War. Pfc. Vincent Gonzalez, 21, of El Paso, Texas, plays a Union soldier. They said the performances are a respite from a very solemn day job.
“It’s a break from the funerals,” said Borden.
The two are riflemen who fire 21-gun salutes at the funerals of veterans and those killed in action at Arlington. They take part in four funerals a day each. Their company conducts 20.
In addition to a break from the repetition at Arlington, the shows have also been enlightening for the young soldiers.
“It’s a history lesson,” Gonzales said. “But it’s a fun history lesson.”
Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, the two-star general who commands the Military District of Washington, said the recruitment and competition for assignments to the Old Guard is intense — even for singers.
“They are part of the band, Pershing’s Own” he said. “We recruit heavily and it’s very selective.”
Linnington said the shows are a way to say thank you to the people who support those in uniform — all of the soldiers from Linnington down were in the concourse shaking hands after the show.
“This is great for children because it teaches about the history of the country,” said Linnington, who attended both performances on Friday and plans to attend both today. “It teaches what their military has done for them. And it’s really entertaining as well.”
Entertainment was the main thing on the mind of Roy Nelson of Chapin.
The 93-year-old Minnesota native was in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He served on an aircraft carrier supporting the British from 1937 to 1941 — before the U.S. entered the war — then re-enlisted and served in the Pacific on a transport ship in 1944 and 1945.
“I just came to hear that wonderful band,” he said. “They’re not Navy, but they’re all right.”