Major Parsons goes to Gitmo

From left: Producer Al Bowman, lead guitarist Steve Ornest, drummer Izzy Diaz, Honorary Mayor of Hollywood Johnny Grant, band leader Robert James Parsons, electric bassist Troy Spiropolous and Bryan Williams with the Walk of Fame Star, which was presented to base Captain Cmdr. Mark Leary in honor of Gitmo's tradition and commitment to entertaining the troops, the first star of its kind for the military.

The head of the local band was left without members days before the band was to leave for the Naval station at Guantanamo Bay to perform for troops New Year’s Eve. Undeterred, Robert James Parsons pulled it off and saw his dream of entertaining for the military come true.

By Vive DeCou / Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu resident Robert James Parsons was just about to eat dinner when the phone rang. It was independent producer Al Bowman calling on a chilly mid-December eve.

Bowman had news that Parsons’ rock-and-roll cover act, The Major Parsons Project, was invited to play a show on New Year’s Eve for troops stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, called Gitmo. Recently retired from active duty after 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, Parsons saw his dream of entertaining military audiences come within his grasp. But there was a catch-his band had only one day to sign on and there was no pay involved. Undeterred, Parsons gave Bowman the go-ahead to book the band and thus began an adventure that was part dream come true and part Spinal Tap.

The first sign of trouble came immediately after Parsons hung up the phone and contacted members of The Project-all of whom opted out. Disputes over payment and prior obligations made it clear that the original members were not going to Gitmo.

Disappointed, but not giving up, Parsons lost no time gathering new musicians to get the mission accomplished. He hired a group of expert players, and left for Gitmo only days later without ever having rehearsed together.

“This whole thing is one big social experiment,” Parsons said then of the uncertainty they faced.

At an overnight stay at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla., a few more people joined the party, including Johnny Grant, the honorary mayor of Hollywood. Grant is the man in charge of who gets a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. A seasoned traveler at 82, Grant performed in USO shows with Bob Hope for decades and also had a successful military career; it would be his first visit to Gitmo. Grant’s mission was to present a star to the base commander in honor of Gitmo’s tradition and commitment to entertaining the troops, the first star of its kind for the military.

The next day the group was flown to Gitmo in a C-9 Nightingale jet. The plane banked hard and low upon landing as it avoided flying into Cuban air space. Ferried across the bay on military transport by Craig Basel, head of the Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department, they came upon a sleepy island scene.

Foreign nationals from Jamaica and the Philippines on contract with the U.S. government went about their duties with quiet efficiency. Boats dotted the bay where residents and visitors snorkeled and dove in waters teeming with life.

Despite its tropical humidity, the average annual rainfall at Gitmo is less than that of Southern California and the ecology is closer to a desert. The earth is made of ancient coral, and supports more cacti than banyan trees. Iguanas roam the low rolling hills along with Hutia, called banana rats, while turkey vultures circled in the skies.

The base, which is more than 45 square miles, rings the bay and vistas of Cuba can be seen from all sides beyond the fence that circles the base. Closed since the early sixties, there is no travel or trade permitted through the gate. Anything that comes into the base arrives by barge and is checked by dogs, making Gitmo a place almost devoid of crime and drugs.

It is a place on the forefront of intelligence gathering for the global war on terror. Detainees from 42 countries are housed at Camp Delta, the detention center on the southeast corner of the base. Allegations of prisoner abuse has put Gitmo on center stage in an ongoing controversy, and an atmosphere of secrecy is compounded with “No Photographs” signs and in repeated warnings that someone is always watching and always listening.

The musicians took part in planned events including tours and a radio interview later broadcast on 103.1, The Blitz, one of three radio stations on the base. The Friday evening before New Year’s Eve found the whole group at base Captain Cmdr. Mark Leary’s house where Grant presented the star to him. Project band members socialized with the military’s top brass, including commander of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, Brigadier General Jay Hood.

Saturday, the band rehearsed together for the first time. Equipment snafus delayed them, but they pulled through and were able to deliver a raucous performance for the troops that night, which included covers from bands like U2 and Rage Against the Machine. The Project members were overwhelmed by the response they received.

“It was a welcome break to be so appreciated,” singer Brian “Hacksaw” Williams said.

The soldiers’ goodwill came as no surprise to Parsons.

“That is the magic of playing for military audiences,” he said.

Another show was added to the itinerary the following Monday night. The band prepared to play at Club Survivor at Camp America, the military housing adjacent to Camp Delta. While they set up on an open-air stage on the cliffs above a turbulent sea, a tour of the detention center for Parsons, Bowman and Grant was underway. They went behind the wire and saw first-hand the facilities at Camp Delta.

Although the media has been focused on conditions for the detainees, many guardsmen spoke of tension on the base due to living conditions at Camp America, where they share rooms with only sheets to separate individual spaces.

“The past two years [the controversy] has been on the back burner,” a guardsman said. “We are having problems here because we can’t be home.”

He went on to cite the male/female ratio of 23:1 as another source of stress.

The Monday concert ended with the only original song the band would play, appropriately titled “Going Home.”

The soldiers listened and talked about missing home and of the experiences they had at Gitmo. One story they told is of Sergeant Major, a giant male iguana who had made Camp America his turf. Unafraid of people, it would approach soldiers and, with a hard stare and a nod of the head, intimidate them into feeding it.

The musicians left the next morning, still filled with excitement about the experience they had at Gitmo, a feeling that would last all the way through four plane rides and an unintentional overnight stay in Atlanta before getting home.

“Performing for the men and women who defend our nation’s liberties was an unforgettable experience,” Troy Spiropoulos said, electric bassist for The Project. “The appreciation they exhibited toward our performances and to us individually is something I will never forget.”