Gigs in Saddam's Palace

By Joshua DiStefano '96

As a Berklee student, I dreamed about playing gigs in front of thousands of screaming fans in exotic, faraway places. I pictured jamming with my friends until the wee hours of the morning and pulling women from the audience to the stage to bump and grind with me. These dreams came true (somewhat) when I spent last year in Iraq as the pianist with the Army's 4th Infantry Division Band. Reality was like nothing I'd imagined, though. The girls flocking to the stage in my dreams weren't female soldiers wearing shoulder holsters. 

I joined the U.S. Army in 1997. I was unemployed at the time and living back at home in Los Angeles with my brand new film scoring degree collecting dust on a shelf. In a classic catch-22, no one would hire me because I didn't have any experience, and I couldn't get experience because no one would hire me. When my student loans came due, I had to do something.

At Berklee, I'd heard about the army band and remember thinking there was no way I would ever join it. After living at home again with no job prospects, the Army band looked like a sweet gig. It was a way to get out of my mom's house, travel the world playing music, and receive a steady paycheck and benefits. I enlisted. 

After basic training, I shipped out to the Armed Forces School of Music in Norkfolk, Virginia. Having completed Berklee, I assumed this would be a breeze. I was wrong. We had physical training at 5:30 a.m., bed checks at 11:00 p.m., and omnipresent drill sergeants. We studied music theory, ear training, how to march for parades and ceremonies, and received private instrumental instruction. I had passed my piano proficiencies at Berklee, but I was a composer not a great pianist. I struggled to translate the knowledge in my brain to my fingers.

I practiced really hard for hours a day and passed by the skin of my teeth. I was sent to Fairbanks, Alaska, to be the pianist for the rock band, jazz combo, and big band. We toured Alaska giving concerts and clinics, eating reindeer sausage, and dodging moose. I had such a good time that I signed up again and went to Fort Benning, Georgia. The army had already paid off my student loans and promoted me to staff sergeant. 

By the time I was assigned to the band of the 4th Infantry Division, (Mechanized) 4th ID, at Fort Hood, Texas, the nation was pursuing the war on terror in Afghanistan, and Iraq was in the crosshairs. If the 4th Infantry Division went to Iraq, the band would go too. Being a squad leader, I had seven people who depended on me. I was responsible for ensuring that my men and women knew how to put on gas masks in eight seconds, give each other first aid, stay physically fit, and more. The toughest part of my job was convincing the squad that everything would be all right which I wasn't convinced myself). But I put on my game face and we trained for war. As I spent more time with my rifle than my piano, I clung to the hope that we wouldn't get called. 

Six weeks later, though, I was sweating in a Kuwaiti tent, weighed down with a flack vest, helmet, and 210 rounds. The sand was inescapable. It was everywhere-in my eyes, my hair, my mouth and got into my lungs with each breath. Sandstorms hit like a high-pressure sprayer stinging any exposed skin and obscuring anything more than 20 feet away. After a month, I began thinking it wasn't that bad after all and that war would be a breeze. Then we moved into Iraq.

I spent my first night there huddled under a blanket in the bullet-riddled Saddam International airport. On CNN a few days before we left Texas, I saw a firefight that took place in the very spot in which we were staying. Evidence around us confirmed it: broken glass, bullet holes, and suspicious looking stains. We were all a bit edgy, and no one slept that night.

The next morning, the band plus 150 other soldiers rode in a massive convoy to Tikrit. Traveling in the back of a five-ton truck allowed me my first look at the Iraqis. The children all smiled, waved, and begged for candy. But I saw hatred in the eyes of those over 20 years old. I wondered which one might take an AK-47 out from under his car seat. Aside from envisioning my own death at every turn, the trip was pretty uneventful. We rolled into the enormous compound of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Takrit. Our new home was a three-story palace with an emerald-green layered roof, indoor swimming pool, and view of the Tigris River. My buddies who had arrived before had told horror stories of nightly attacks and all-day work details followed by all-night guard shifts.

By 2:00 a.m. the first night, I was standing guard at one of the palace gates. We pulled guard duty for six weeks until our instruments arrived. Some nights we were attacked. 

  • Boom.

    "Get up! Get your gear on!"


    "Get down! Get away from the windows!"

    "Everybody into the hallway! Squad leaders account for your people!"


Typically, mortars were lobbed at us from a mile away. You never knew they were coming until the flash and bang. Once your heart started again, you'd run for cover. Luckily, the Iraqis had notoriously bad aim, but you couldn't avoid thinking each day might be the day you'd die. There was no electricity or water in the palace. Forty of us slept on cots in what used to be a large bedroom. We played cards, read books, and really got to know one another.

When our instruments finally arrived, we began rehearsing immediately. Although everyone was out of practice, it felt really good to shake off the cobwebs and play again. The jazz combo, which I directed, set up at the base of the stairs in the palace and plugged into a little generator. We played funk, swing, and samba for the soldiers eating their MREs. A small crowd gathered around soaking in the sounds of home before picking up their gear and heading back to the grueling tasks awaiting them. I had a blast. For the first time in months, I started to feel like a complete person again. More important, I was now doing my job of raising the morale of my fellow soldiers. Taking them away from the hell surrounding them - even for five minutes - made me feel useful.

The jazz combo had some loyal fans. No one left our gigs disappointed. A guitarist named Skip led the 4th ID rock band Prime Mover. Our first rock gig was in the chapel, a large, open room with a wooden stage where we watched movies at night, rehearsed six days a week, and held Sunday services. I began to solidify my status as a crowd pleaser by singing "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" by Cake. I'd grab the mic, gyrate with the mic stand, and bring people to their feet. The powers that be noticed that we made people happy, and we were sent out on tour. 

We were excited to get out of the compound, but we didn't comprehend the danger. Convoys were attacked with bullets, rockets, and roadside bombs on a regular basis. We would drive down the road and then boom, an explosion. We sat on wooden planks in the back of cargo trucks in full battle gear trying not to bounce out. With temperatures frequently hitting 120 degrees, we'd arrive at the gig after a few hours of driving with our tee shirts, pants, and outer jackets completely soaked.

By the time my year ended, I'd played 200 gigs. We risked life and limb traveling through hostile territory to boost the morale of the troops. I played in front of several thousand screaming fans a few times and danced onstage with women wearing shoulder holsters many times. I backed up visiting celebrities Drew Carey and the Washington Redskins cheerleaders.

A friend recently asked, "If you had to do it all again, would you?" I told him that going to Iraq is something I would never have chosen to do, but now that it's over, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world.