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When I first arrived to the West Point Band as a clarinetist in 2004, I was jokingly told by many of my new coworkers that the only two things I really had to know were: A) what time to show up, and B) what uniform to be wearing. I say jokingly because I thought they were just being funny, but it turned out to be at least partially true, especially where uniforms are concerned. Behind the scenes as a military musician, while there may be an occasional, “I’m nervous about playing that solo,” there are ten times as many comments like, “Does anyone have an extra set of medals?” “Are we in white or blue pants for this?” or “Where is my belt?!?!” I can personally attest that my most frightening moments of the job had nothing to do with performing music, but more with the times I was clumsily fumbling with a tangle of white cords on my marching uniform with only two minutes left to get into formation, or the sheer terror I felt once when I was almost to the parade field and realized I forgot my white gloves.
Uniforms are obviously very important in the military. They encourage unit cohesion, and distinguish us from other military branches, other countries, and other even other units. Not only do the uniforms look impressive, but the various insignia, medals, patches, and stripes convey a variety of information about our military careers. When the band is out performing for the public, people ask us questions about our uniforms almost more than anything else.
When the band is rehearsing and doing our day-to-day work, we wear the regular duty uniforms of the army—either ACU’s or ASU Class B’s mostly. When it comes to performances, we each have a locker full of mix and match uniform parts that come together to create our dress uniforms, both for concert and marching. These uniforms are specific to the West Point Band and have evolved throughout the band’s near 200-year history to become the uniforms you see today.
Our Concert Blue and Full Dress Blue uniforms, which you will see below, were modeled to resemble the cadet marching uniforms, and have been around more or less in their current form since 1902.
The Concert Blue uniform is probably the most recognizable, as it is the one in which we perform most of our sit-down performances and concerts. It consists of our dark blue high collar coat, complete with medals, over blue pants. In concert settings, the females can also choose to wear a long blue skirt instead of the pants. This uniform is also used for marching funerals and occasionally other outdoor ceremonies, in which case we will wear white gloves and our flat blue hat as well. (It probably goes without saying, but skirts are not an option for marching.) Our high collar coat is the most distinctive part of our uniform, bearing the “USMA Band” patch on the shoulder. The dark blue color represents the “Army Blue,” and the red piping is a remnant of the red used in the uniforms of the Continental Army.
A closer look at the high collar coat—What are all of the stripes and patches?
Most of the questions we get are directed at deciphering the stripes, patches, and medals on our high collar. On each of the sleeves towards the cuff, individuals will have a certain number of white stripes. These are service stripes, and each one represents three years time in service. So if you see someone with no stripes, they have been in for under three years. Likewise if you see someone with stripes up to their elbow, they have been in the band a very long time. On our sleeves near the elbow is a patch displaying our rank. The members of the West Point Band are all NCO’s (with the exception of our conductors who are officers, and whose rank is displayed on their shoulders), and rank from E-6 (Staff Sergeant) to E-9 (Sergeant Major).
What do the medals mean?
On the left side of the uniform are two unit awards, with the Adjutant General Regimental Crest above. The AG crest signifies that the band is a part of the US Army Adjutant General Corps, which is a branch of the US Army first established in 1775.
The red ribbon is the Meritorius Unit Commendation, which was awarded to the West Point Band in 1946 for uncompromising performance of its duties, including playing for the FDR Funeral held on April 15, 1946.
The red and green ribbon is the Army Superior Unit Award, which was awarded to every unit on West Point in June of 2010 for national recognition of the academy being named “The Best College in America” by Forbes magazine, and “The Top Public Liberal Arts College” by U.S. News and World Report.
On the right side of the uniform are the individual’s service awards and personal decorations, which serve to display the highlights of a service member’s career. All band members have the National Defense Service Medal (the red and yellow medal), and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal (the blue medal). The former is awarded to any member of the US Armed Forces who served honorably during distinct periods of “national emergency,” including the Korean War, Vietnam War, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the Global War on Terrorism. The Global War on Terrorism Medal is awarded to any service member who has performed service during the War on Terror, from September 11, 2001 until a date yet to be determined. Other medals depend on an individual’s accomplishments. Click here see a list of all of the Army’s awards and decorations.
The Sierra uniform is used for performing in warm weather, for either concert or marching settings, and sometimes football games. It may not be the most comfortable of uniforms, but it can be a huge relief to wear short sleeves on a hot day instead of roasting inside the high collar. Sierras consist of a white, short sleeve button down shirt, black belt, and blue pants. The shirt is similar to the Class B every day shirt; on it we wear our nametag and shoulder boards with rank (although it is white instead of gold). However, unlike the Class B shirt, we also wear our medals on this shirt. The headgear for this uniform is the flat white hat. We wear this uniform for our summer outdoor concerts, as well as for some of the warm weather military reviews.
Full Dress Blue
This is by far the most intricate and ornate uniform, and the one that is hardest and most time-consuming to put together. Even seasoned band members can forget what goes where by the time parade season rolls around again. The full dress uniform starts with the high collar coat (but without any medals), over blue OR white pants.
The reason we don’t wear medals on the high collar is to make room for the black wool pouch that goes over our right shoulder, the braided white cords, and the white belt. With this we also wear white gloves, and a hat we affectionately refer to as our “tar bucket.” The tar bucket bears the USMA crest and a tall black plume. We only wear the full dress blue uniform for reviews and sometimes football games (although we save the tar bucket for marching on the field, and opt for the more sensible flat blue hat for playing in the stands).
How do we decide which uniforms to wear?
For the band’s own events, such as concerts, we generally wear the Concert Blue uniform for indoor concerts, and the Sierra uniform for outdoor concerts. However, in ceremonies and events in which the band plays a supportive role, we usually wear a uniform to match everyone else. For instance, for formal events in which participants wear the Class A uniform, we will wear our Concert Blue uniform. For ceremonies in which everyone is in ACU’s, we will also wear our ACU’s. For any event involving cadets, such as reviews and football games, we will wear equivalent uniform of those the cadets are wearing. Reviews are usually either done in Full Dress Blue or Sierras, as are the football game marching shows that we do.
Weather does play a role in determining the uniform for a performance or event, although certain events are in the same uniform regardless of the season or weather. For instance, full military funerals are always performed in our Concert Blue uniform, whether it is below freezing or 90 degrees outside. (I should mention that we do have an overcoat and other approved, cold-weather gear for the lower temperatures. When it comes to heat, however, we pretty much have to be Army Strong and tough it out!)
It’s often said that the audience “hears with its eyes,” and we in the band experience this firsthand all the time. Before we play a single note, people form impressions based on our uniforms. We are proud to serve in the uniforms of the United States Army, and hopefully this has given you a better understanding of our uniforms here in the West Point Band.
Words by Staff Sgt. Erin Beaver
Images by Staff Sgt. Torin Olsen