Music in a war zoneby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
A Fergus Falls couple has discovered there's a big demand for music among soldiers serving in Iraq.
It started with one guitar. Now hundreds of soldiers are requesting instruments.
Steve and Barb Baker say they intend to fill every request.
Fergus Falls, Minn. — Steve and Barb Baker own a small music store in downtown Fergus Falls.
But these days they're spending most of their time in a cluttered back room running a non profit called Operation Happy Note.
"I've got a viola in this one. There's a bassoon in this one. There's a trumpet here. There's an oboe here. There's a clarinet there," says Steve as he points to boxes and cases stacked around the room.
Some of these instruments are donated, others are purchased by operation Happy Note. Steve Baker says they're all destined for a soldier in Iraq.
"A lady sent us a 1956 Conn trumpet, in perfect condition," says Steve. "Some young lad over there is going to open a box and see that trumpet laying there and he's going to fall over." "She sent it because her husband had been in the Army band and he passed away and she wanted another soldier to have it," adds Barb.
The Bakers says they've put instruments in the hands of more than 400 soldiers in the past two years.
Barb just quit her job for a full time unpaid position running Operation Happy Note.
Steve says he's spending more time on Operation Happy Note than on his music business.
It all started innocently a couple of years ago when son Marte was deployed in Iraq.
"It was was a birthday present to her son Marte. We pulled off one of my recording guitars and popped it in the U.S. mail and sent it over to him," explains Steve.
"And he had a buddy that wanted one, and another buddy wanted one and Steve said, 'I think we should have a fund raiser so we can send more over to his troop,'" adds Barb. "And I said, 'Okay, a fund raiser. How do we do that?'"
Two years later, Operation Happy Note is getting three to five requests a day for instruments. On this day they're waiting for a shipment of 50 new guitars that will be re-packaged and sent to Iraq. Steve says postage will cost more than the guitars.
Staff Sergeant Louis Karsnia received a guitar from Operation Happy Note. He's back home in Fergus Falls, but he remembers the day a big box with five guitars arrived at his base near Baghdad.
"I had my driver come with me, we went and got a humvee. He said, 'Do you think there's a guitar in there for me?' I said, 'Well maybe.' There was. So I gave him his guitar and he just immediately took it out of the box went and sat down, tuned it and started playing," recalls Karsnia.
Sergeant Karsnia says a crowd quickly gathered and soon more soldiers were asking how they could get instruments. He says the music was a big boost to morale. He says soldiers are tired of watching movies and playing video games.
Karsnia gave his guitar to a chaplain when he left Iraq, so the Bakers presented him with a new one when he came home to Fergus Falls.
The Bakers don't often get to meet the soldiers they help, but they have email relationships with dozens from all over the country. The soldiers send pictures and one newly formed band from the Kentucky National Guard sent a recording of a song they made in a chapel at Camp Taji, in the volatile Sunni triangle near Baghdad.
Steve and Barb Baker say what started as a way to help morale in their son's platoon has become a passion.
Steve shows an email from a colonel running a hospital unit that received a shipment of instruments. The soldiers were bored and had few distractions in their downtime.
"But, he says about three weeks after the instruments were getting there, you'd walk through the compound and hear a little blues band, a little jazz band, a rock band, a little country band," says Steve. "The morale of the place he said, must have gone up 300 percent. No more upside down smiles."
"I've got an email here that describes it better than any email I've gotten," adds Barb. "He says, 'You guys are truly making a difference in soldiers lives over here. A simple note can change the atmosphere in a desert a world away.' I could never describe it any better than he just did. That's why we do it." The Bakers are hoping in the next few months they can expand Operation Happy Note to also provide instruments to the children of soldiers deployed in Iraq.
- Morning Edition, 07/24/2007, 6:50 a.m.