by Tammy Ortung
Every morning for the past two months I’d trudged from my home to the bus stop to the office, feeling like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day, every day on repeat. I lived in a containerized-housing unit, or CHU, on Camp Victory in Baghdad, and worked in the personnel office that tracked all the troops flowing in, out, and around the Victory Base Complex.
I’d been brought over from the Air Force to augment the Army, and given the fancy title of Joint Manpower Document Manager for the MNF-I CJ1/4/8 Personnel office, though I didn’t actually manage anything. All I could do was run queries and print reports. Whereas the NCO in the manpower office downstairs, whose position seemed to mimic mine, had unlimited system capabilities. I often wondered why I was even there.
Each week, like clockwork, we had a meeting with our Directorate Commander, General Steinbeck. Not that it mattered, but I liked him—he was very personable, for a general. Today was no exception. Before the meeting began, he started making small talk with everyone and then turned his attention to me and began discussing music, a shared interest.
“You and Kup looked like you were having fun making up lyrics and singing at the Directorate Social on Saturday night,” he said.
“We’re having a barbeque next month for the Corps troops heading home,” he said. “I was thinking it would be great if we had a song for the farewell barbeque to send them off in style, something that busts their chops a little.”
I nodded and smiled at him, thinking a farewell tune sounded like a great idea. But after several seconds I realized he was looking at me expectantly.
“Sir, uh, Kup was the one making up funny lyrics, not me.” I stuttered an excuse.
“Oh, I’m sure you could do it,” he said, watching me intently. I felt a sudden urge to fidget in my seat like child who didn’t know the answer to a teacher’s question. This wasn’t something one normally expected to be asked by a senior officer. The silence became unbearable. Even I understood there was only one way to respond when a general asked you to do something.
“Well sir, I’ll do my best,” I said, feeling my stomach drop to the floor as the words left my mouth. What just happened? Over the years, I had written a few little ditties for family members, but I was no Elton John. I felt completely unqualified to write this song. But, as always, I hid behind my military bearing, pretending a confidence I didn’t possess.
The next evening, I vented to Andy, my Navy counterpart, as he and I practiced guitars in the conference room after work.
“Why don’t you write lyrics to a popular song everyone knows?” Andy suggested.
“That’s a great idea,” I said, feeling about fifty pounds lighter.
The next day, I started researching top music categories online.
I decided “Hit the Road, Jack” was the perfect song for this daunting task—I thought “Hit the Road, Corps” had a nice ring to it.
Later that day, General Steinbeck’s Executive Officer (EXEC) rushed over to the office to give me some Corps facts, things the general thought would be helpful to know before I wrote the lyrics. I was surprised how easy process was—the song practically wrote itself. I found the chord charts for “Hit the Road, Jack” practiced the song quietly in my CHU each night. A few days later I recorded the melody on a digital hand-held recorder.
I’d grown up in a musical family and loved to sing. Yet even though I’d sung solos in elementary school, experimented with karaoke, and led a few worship songs more recently at church, I had an average voice—and a below-average ability to write song lyrics. The final result wasn’t something I was particularly comfortable with putting out there for strangers to hear. I tried to lessen my anxiety by letting Andy and Al, my Marine counterpart, listen to the song before I emailed the finished product to the major. When they complimented my efforts, I figured I’d survive total embarrassment.
The next day I received a phone call from the major.
“The general listened to the song and loves it,” he said. “But…” He paused. “He thinks the lyrics might be a bit mean and thought maybe we should have another song—a nice one this time.”
I cringed as I waited for what I knew was coming.
“Do you think you could write another song?” he asked.
The general had wanted something that would bust their chops, making fun of the sometimes not-so-friendly competitiveness between the units. This was part of our camaraderie, the military culture, so I didn’t think twice about it. Yet, in hindsight, I guess the lyrics Hit the Road, Corps, and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more, may have been a little harsh…
I couldn’t believe this was happening. Yes, I loved music, and yes, I loved to sit around jamming with other musicians. But writing songs to be performed in front of hundreds of people was taking things to a whole other, uncomfortable, level. Yet again, what could I say? Besides, I really liked General Steinbeck and knew he was merely trying to make this farewell extra special by letting the Corps know how much he appreciated all their hard work.
I went to the Internet a second time, trying to find another popular song I knew well enough to manipulate the lyrics. I settled on “The One I Love” by R.E.M., and re-titled it, “This One Goes Out to the Ones We Love.”
Though it would never win a Grammy, the second song was much easier to write. The lyrics definitely sounded nicer: This goes out to the ones we love. This one goes out from the ones who’re left behind. For fifteen months, you occupied your time, fighting for freedom and a country that you love. I recorded my newest amateurish masterpiece and emailed the file to the major, along with an electronic copy of the lyrics and chord sheets for both songs.
I thought that would be the end of things—a job well done—but that would have been too easy. I was enlightened two weeks later during our next meeting with General Steinbeck when he turned to me.
“Tammy, I loved those two songs you wrote,” he said. “This is going to go well. I’ll accompany you on the drums, Kup can play guitar, and the Army band will fill in on keys and bass.”
Whoa, wait a minute, I thought. Accompany me? What was he saying exactly?
“Sir, I thought you already had someone to sing the songs,” I said. “That’s why I sent everything to the major. I’m not a soloist. I usually sing harmony,”
The general smiled confidently. He was a general, and while a nice guy, he was definitely used to getting his own way.
“Oh, Tammy, you sounded great on the recordings, just like Kelli Pickler from ‘American Idol,’” he said. “It’s going to be fine. Get with Kup and practice the songs and everything will be good.” As far as he was concerned the conversation was over. He turned his attention to Colonel Erving and started discussing work-related issues.
I felt numb. Dazed. As I sat at the table, completely oblivious to the meeting going on around me, the general’s words slowly registered in my muddled brain. I realized this had been his plan all along. Not only had I committed to write the songs, but I had somehow promised to sing them—in front of hundreds of people—just me, myself, and I. I dreaded the barbeque, which for me would be like standing in front of a crowd people wearing a bikini two sizes too small, or wearing a bikini at all.
On the day of the event, we strolled through enormous double doors of one of Saddam’s largest palaces and into a huge foyer with a wide, winding, marble staircase that resembled those found in old southern plantations. We bypassed the stairs and headed down the hall toward the back of the building and the large stone veranda that had been set up for the barbeque. We were met by a wall of beautifully crafted French doors that expertly displayed a breathtaking view of the oasis beyond. We strolled through an open set of doors to a huge sandstone terrace with etched, round pillars and a stone railing that ran the entire length of the deck. A winding staircase led to a lower level where mature trees sprouted along the man-made waterfront, shading the veranda with their outstretched limbs. Ducks and other birds swam, squawking in hushed tones.
Troops were still setting up for the event, but my attention was drawn to the brassy, rhythmic jazz a few feet away. A young man sat banging on a full set of drums, flanked on each side by keyboards and a bass guitar. I’d known an Army Band was scheduled to play at the event, but I never imagined the female vocalist currently singing into the microphone would have a voice that rivaled Christina Aguilera’s.
After hearing her sing, I was even more intimidated. I’d been stressing over this for weeks and thought I was prepared for the colossal embarrassment of singing a solo in front of all these people—but now, the obvious contrast between amateur and professional made reality worse than any of my nightmares.
Minutes dragged. We helped set up tables and chairs, but once complete, there was nothing left to do, so we sat at a table near the band and waited for everyone to arrive. These events never started on time.
A short while later, the band started playing a top forties song. The hum of conversation escalated as people filtered in and started socializing. Andy, Al, and I shouted over the music, but eventually gave up trying to have a conversation. Another hour passed. The aroma of grilling burgers and hot dogs wafted over the slight breeze, teasing our ravenous appetites.
Finally, General Steinbeck entered through French doors off to my right. The major arrived a few seconds later and strolled directly over to the band, gesturing to the vocalist.
“Now we have a special farewell song from General Steinbeck,” the jazz singer said when their song ended. She handed me the microphone with an encouraging smile and ambled over to the seat I had just vacated.
The mic was connected directly to an amplifier, not a sound board where it might have been possible to tweak the quality and tone of my voice. No, I couldn’t be that lucky. I dreaded the sound of my raw, uneducated, basic voice belting through the amp.
The crowd gathered around as General Steinbeck made himself comfortable behind the drums and Kup strapped on his guitar. I was surprised when Kup handed the jazz keyboardist and bass player copies of the music—I had forgotten they were playing with us. It felt like we were literally soaring by the seat of our battle dress uniforms. Before I could totally freak out, Kup counted us off: “A one, two, three, four.”
My nose started tingling and heat flooded my cheeks as I sang the first few lyrics. My voice sounded even worse than I’d anticipated. The slight breeze provided some relief, but nothing could completely curb the heat that crept up and around my ears.
A sudden gust of wind blew my bobbed hair into my eyes and almost flung my music off the stand in the middle of the first song. I quickly swiped my hair out of my face and reached out to steady my music, struggling to see the lyrics when the paper curled around my hand. As I continued singing, several people laughed in all the appropriate places, and I hoped they were listening more to the words than the voice delivering them.
We finished both songs and our performance finally was over. I was dimly aware of the applause erupting from the crowd as I staggered back to the table. When everyone’s attention strayed elsewhere, I felt the heat in my face and the shaking of my limbs dissolve like Zipfizz in water.
“I recorded the entire performance,” an Army major said as we slowly navigated the food line a little while later.
Oh joy, I thought; now there was a permanent record of this debacle.
“I can make you a copy if you have a jump drive,” he said.
“Cool, thanks,” I said. Maybe the songs didn’t sound as bad as I thought.
A few days later, he delivered the loaded jump drive to my cubicle.
I waited until later that evening when I got back to my CHU to watch the videos. They were even worse than I’d expected. My voice cracked several times when singing “Hit the Road, Corps.” I watched myself smirk at each broken note, trying to smile my way through the humiliation. The second song sounded a little better as it was written in a more favorable key for my alto voice, but I never wanted to show my face in public again.
The following week my phone rang.
“Captain Ortung, MNF-I CJ1-4-8. How can I help you?” I said into the receiver.
“Tammy, It’s General Steinbeck.”
“Hi sir,” I said, confusion clearly in my tone. Generals did not normally call captains directly; they used the chain of command.
“I’m having a small house party tomorrow for Corps leadership and some of them weren’t able to come to the barbeque,” he said. “I was wondering if you could come over and sing our two songs.”
This nightmare is never going to end, I thought. I knew that no one with any brains at all would tell a general, No, but I tried.
“Well sir, I would really prefer not to,” I said. “The truth is, I’m not really comfortable singing by myself in front people.”
“I don’t want you to do something you’re not comfortable with,” the general said. While he wasn’t as hard core as most generals, I wondered if he really cared how I felt. I had clearly expressed my discomfort, yet he had not relented. He was a general, and generals always—always—got what they wanted.
“I really wish you would reconsider. It’s a small group,” he said, doggedly pursuing his agenda.
Though he could have ordered me to do it, he reasoned with me instead, giving the illusion that I had a choice in the matter. I already felt guilty for trying to get out of singing, and protocol dictated that I shouldn’t have quibbled at all.
“Sir, if Kup can play guitar, I’ll do it.” I replied. I felt better at the thought of having him with me—misery’s fondness for company, and all that.
“Done,” he said as if that was all he’d been waiting to hear.
The major answered the door at General Steinbeck’s house the next day and we walked through the foyer toward the living room where we were welcomed with the soft hum of about a dozen senior military leaders socializing. I spotted Kup in the back corner and ambled over, happy he was already here.
“Let’s go into the back room and run through the songs until they’re ready for us,” he said. The major had already told him where we were expected to disappear while the VIPs mingled.
Finally called to perform, we were paraded out to the living room area where instead of hundreds of people, there were only twelve or fifteen in attendance. If possible, I was even more nervous here than at the barbeque where many attendees had been distracted by the jovial atmosphere and their sidebar conversations. It had been easier to hide from the blur of unknown faces spread across that terrace. Yet in this small, confined space, it was harder to escape the stern faces of these colonels staring up at me expectantly.
Kup started strumming the introduction to the first song, and I felt that now familiar tingling in my nose as my face heated and my limbs shook. Several colonels smiled at the more comical lyrics, though many wore undiscernible expressions that made me want to crawl under the coffee table.
When we finished both songs, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought I heard Kup do the same. Though in the following months we would continue jamming during Saturday night socials, we were both happy our celeb-status was over—and this time it really was over. Everyone clapped and said kind words as we gathered our gear, hurried out the front door, and back to work. We didn’t linger. We understood this party wasn’t for us; we were there to serve.
We were there to serve.
“Thank you for your service,” many people said after hearing I spent twenty-five years in the Air Force.
“Did you deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan?” they always asked eventually.
“I deployed to Iraq,” I said time and time again, and watched their regard for me raise as clearly as mercury in a thermometer on a hot, summer day.
I wonder if their response would have changed if they knew I’d spent the better part of a month writing, practicing, and singing songs for a farewell barbeque. That was my contribution to the war effort.
Yet that experience had been both the peak and the anticlimax of my deployment—even now, it is a conundrum. On one hand, I was embarrassed to have literally sung my way through Iraq—a far cry from the job for which I had deployed. And while I mentioned the general and those farewell songs to friends and family, I never uttered a word to any of my military comrades. I refer to that time as my “What happens in Iraq, Stays in Iraq” situation.
These days, I smile when I think about that experience. Sure, I’d been embarrassed and uncomfortable singing solo, on a crappy sound system, in front of all those people, but within a few days I almost felt like the performance had never happened. The truth is, writing those song lyrics had been fun and jamming with Kup during our practice sessions had been enjoyable.
Yet words like fun and enjoyment seemed contrary to terms like deployment and war effort. Was it contrary that those songs were the only thing that ever made me feel like part of a team while in Iraq? Was it wrong that I finally felt like I did something worthwhile? General Steinbeck had been genuinely pleased and appreciated my help with the Corps farewell. Maybe comparing me to Kelli Pickler, an up and coming music star of that time, meant that he considered me a star too. It felt good to be celebrated, even if the accolades weren’t for bravery in combat or another typical military honor.
I kept those videos and while I still hear the rawness in my voice, I also see a kind of musical camaraderie between a lonely Air Force gal and her Army comrades, jamming in complete symmetry.