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Tactical sax

Student and veteran Toby Callaway plays music in war zones

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  • Story by Josh Murray
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Sept. 30, 2011
Toby Callaway

Toby Callaway, a Mizzou senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies, plays in an Air National Guard top-40 band called Sidewinder. A veteran of the war in Iraq, Callaway now performs for troops in and near combat zones.

Once an integral component of battle strategy, military bands have played a role in the U.S. Armed Forces throughout the nation's history. As approaches to both wartime communication and troops’ well-being have evolved, so has the bands’ mission.

“Before we had the technology, the band would sound different calls across the battlefield so the troops would know what movements they should make,” Staff Sergeant Toby Callaway explains. “Now, we no longer need the band to communicate on the battlefield, so the mission has changed to raising troop morale.”

Callaway, a senior interdisciplinary-studies major at Mizzou, plays the saxophone with the U.S. Air Forces Central Command band Sidewinder. Part of the Missouri Air National Guard's 571st Air Force Band, Sidewinder is made up of 10 members of the regular 35-piece concert band. The musicians are deployed as part of the Air Force Bands program, a family of 12 active-duty Air Force and 11 Air National Guard ensembles.

Sidewinder recently wrapped up a two-month tour across Southwest Asia, including Afghanistan, performing for troops to boost morale.

“We get a lot of troops and commanders telling us that we were the best thing that has happened on their deployment,” Callaway says.

Sidewinder played at bases in Afghanistan as part of a rotation of bands that perform concerts throughout that part of the world.

Sousa-free zone

This band is not your typical military band, and its performances often surprise the troops.

“Most people think of a traditional band that plays marches and patriotic music, but we play top-40 tunes made up of pop and rock, which catches them off guard and blows them away,” Callaway says. “During our shows, the troops really get into our performance, and we usually are able to get some of them to dance.”

A video of one of the band’s shows in Afghanistan was posted on YouTube. The video got more than 200,000 views in the first two days it was online and since then has exceeded 1.8 million hits.

That video led to Sidewinder’s television appearances on Fox News and Entertainment Tonight. Good Morning America has invited the band to New York City, and a mini-tour in Las Vegas may be in the works for next summer.

During their stay in Afghanistan, the band members played multiple shows every day. These musicians not only help morale of the troops but also play a key role in building and strengthening relationships with host nations and coalition partners.

On the front lines

This is not Callaway’s first experience with the military. He joined the Marine Corps in 2002, serving active duty for four years. He completed two combat tours in Iraq, working security missions in areas such as convoy security, explosive ordinance disposal security, foot patrol and guard tower duty.

He was honorably discharged at the end of his service in 2006, and two years later learned about the Air National Guard. He immediately auditioned for the band.

“When I heard about the rock band, Sidewinder, I knew I had to get in,” says Callaway, who began playing the saxophone at age 12. Many of the band members are from Missouri — including Callaway, a St. Louis native.

“I enjoy the Air National Guard because it is one weekend a month,” he says. “I still want to be part of the military; I just don’t want to have it be my full-time job. So, with this, I can go to college at the same time.”

Callaway is on track to graduate in May and plans to stay with the Air National Guard for at least 12 more years, at which time he can retire from the military.

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Last updated: June 6, 2013