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Chaplain & band create harmony in Iraq war zone


Photo by Carol Pipes

Lt. Col. Greg Rawlings (right), banjo picker and co-founder of the Baghdad Bad Boys, first heard harmonica player Staff Sgt. Johnny Alvarez playing to the ducks around the lake at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq.

BAGHDAD (BP)—The sound of a banjo bounces out the door of the coffee shop at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq. Before you know it, the familiar tune of “Rocky Top” fills the air.

Every Sunday morning soldiers, airmen and marines make their way to Green Beans Cafe for a cup of joe and a chance to escape the chaos of living in a combat zone.

Photo by Carol Pipes


A little more than a year ago, Southern Baptist chaplain Jeff Houston and Lt. Col. Greg Rawlings, both with the XVIII Airborne from Fort Bragg, N.C., discovered a mutual love for bluegrass and decided to start a band. One by one they added instruments—first a banjo, then a mandolin, next a bass and finally a fiddle. The Baghdad Bad Boys were born.

Rawlings, chief of Multi-National Corps-Iraq C3 Force Management Division, said it all started with an opportunity to sit down with other musicians and create music together. The group began meeting on Friday evenings for a couple of hours in the mini-chapel at the MNC-I (Multi-National Corps — Iraq) chaplain’s office.

The next thing they knew they were invited to entertain patrons of Green Beans Cafe, the military’s version of Starbucks. Every Sunday, they entertain the troops as they sip their lattes and cappuccinos with bluegrass standards—“Rocky Top,” “Seven Bridges Road” and “Salty Dog Blues.”

For a couple of hours each week, the band and those around them are transported out of the desert to a simpler time and place. Sitting in the coffee shop, you’d never know that a combat zone is just 800 meters away, where the enemy reminds the troops of their presence with an occasional mortar round.

“This is our therapy,” Rawlings said, only half-joking. “The object is to knock the dust off our boots and go back to North Carolina for a couple of hours.”

Houston calls it “a great time of fellowship. The few hours we play together helps us get through the week.”

The group is always changing as individual deployments end and new ones begin, the chaplain said. And new players are always welcome, from beginners to virtuosos.

Photo by Carol Pipes


Houston started playing bluegrass at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., where he studied music and religion. Before he became a chaplain, Houston served 15 years as minister of music in several Southern Baptist churches in Missouri.

“Every tour is different,” he said. “Some tours I may do a lot of counseling sessions with soldiers. This tour I’ve been able to use music as a ministry. The role God has guided me to is leading worship at our Protestant chapel service.”

When Houston arrived at Camp Victory, the service had no music, except for the occasional a cappella hymn. He was able to pull together musicians and singers to help lead that congregation in worship.

Those four musicians, Chaplain Houston, Lt. Col. Rawlings, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mike Charles and Maj. Steve Howell, make up The Righteous Arm of the Baghdad Bad Boys. For more than a year the soothing sounds of guitar, banjo and mandolin and familiar tunes have lifted spirits at Hope Chapel.

A soldier recently stopped Houston in the chow hall and said, “I’ve really been blessed each week to come and worship at Mayberry”—a fitting reference to their distinct musical style.

“It’s been a great ministry experience,” Houston said. “The stress of deployment puts you in a situation that taxes all of your resources —physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. The challenge for soldiers is to keep going through that long deployment.”

One of the chaplains’ roles is to help soldiers find avenues to help focus their energy somewhere besides the war, like playing music.

“Meeting Lt. Col. Rawlings and playing music with him has been a blessing to me,” Houston said. “Here’s a Southern Baptist layperson who’s using his gifts to serve God during his deployment.”

Rawlings, a member of Beulah Hill Baptist Church in West End, N.C., also studied music in college. “At 18, I thought I wanted to be a minister of music,” Rawlings said.

But God had other plans. Rawlings entered the ROTC program at Truett-McConnell College as a means to pay for school. The military training stuck, and so did the music.

As the military moved Rawlings and his family from base to base, God allowed him to use his gifts filling in as an assistant or minister of music at churches without a full-time music minister. “God still gets it out of me.”

Back at the coffee shop, Staff Sgt. Johnny Alvarez switches out harmonicas for the next tune. Rawlings, who plays guitar, banjo and mandolin, was the one who discovered the young harmonica player.

“I walked out of my CHU one day and heard a harmonica,” Rawlings said. “I looked over and there was Johnny playing to the ducks.”

A quick study in bluegrass, Alvarez no longer plays for waterfowl. He’s a full-fledged member of the B3.

Like most bluegrass musicians, their dream is to play at the Grand Ole Opry someday.

Around the room, worn, dusty combat boots tap to the beat. It might not be the Opry, but the audience at Camp Victory couldn’t be more appreciative of their performance.

The Baghdad Bad Boys wind down their set with a rousing version of “Rocky Top.” Folks join in on the chorus whether they’re from Tennessee or not, each thinking of a place back home.

Carol Pipes is editor of On Mission. Note: The Baghdad Bad Boys performed together for the last time in Iraq on March 15. The group’s members began heading home in April. A reunion concert is planned for June 6 in Fayetteville, N.C.