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Akeley star performer bound for Iraq

National Guardsman Brian Hitchcock, singing before a Vikings audience, will soon be boosting troop morale in Iraq as a member of the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division Band. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
"It's going to be a tough year," Lacey admits. Meanwhile, Brian is growing a Bunyan beard until he begins his tour of duty. (Jean Ruzicka/Enterprise)2 / 2

AKELEY - On Brian Hitchcock's home turf in Akeley, residents know him as council member, percussionist and vocalist, wowing audiences from behind the karaoke microphone at the muni.

Down in the National Guardsman's hometown of the Twin Cities, he's engaged Vikings, Twins and Gophers fans with solos at games, as well as entertaining three Minnesota governors.

"I'm more nervous singing karaoke in Akeley than down in the big Metrodome," he admits. The audience in the monstrous 66,000-seat stadium is distant, he explains. "Here I know everybody."

But Sgt. Hitchcock will soon bid farewell to friends and family to begin a 400-day deployment. He'll be bound for Iraq in early May with the 1,000-member 34th Red Bull Infantry Division after training in Fort Lewis, Wash.

Hitchcock's solo performance of "God Bless America" at the recent departure ceremony in St. Paul drew a standing ovation.

But the performer wasn't smiling and taking a bow.

"It's not about me," he said. "This is for the troops. I'm speaking for them. There are a lot of good people going over."

'Best job in the military'

Hitchcock, 35, joined the National Guard at 19. This is his first deployment. He'd initially served as a percussionist and sang harmony - until his commander heard him behind the microphone.

"Pick a song," he told him. "You're going to be doing it."

The drummer/singer will be part of a 45-member band, traveling the southern third of Iraq - in territory about the size of Minnesota, with a population of 8.5 million.

The musicians also form smaller groups, playing rock and country. Hitchcock's group, "Center Mass" (aiming at the target) will entertain with more modern tunes, Hitchcock explained. Examples: Ramones and Foo Fighters songs. He'll be on the drums and behind the microphone.

Gifted musicians, including music teachers from around the state, some holding master's degrees, comprise the band, he said.

But this is no Bob Hope brigade.

"We're soldiers first," Hitchcock said of the training he underwent this summer at Fort Ripley, with more to follow at Fort Lewis. "We go through the same boot camp everyone else does.

"We'll be in a war zone," he explained. He'll be carrying both drumsticks and a rifle. Although trained for active combat, he doubts he'll experience it.

The Red Bull band's primary role will be to boost morale and perform at Iraqi provincial ceremonies.

"We'll be giving something to relax the soldiers," he said. "I personally think this is the best job in the military.

"I'm excited," Hitchcock said. "You can't go in with a negative attitude and expect to come back."

Support on the home front

Hitchcock will begin his tour of duty the first part of March.

"The Vikes will probably win the Super Bowl because I won't be here," the avid fan said of his year-long absence.

At this month's Akeley council meeting, he requested a leave of absence from his position as a council member.

"I am hoping to return in mid 2010 and finish the remainder of my term that I was elected to by the citizens of Akeley," he told fellow council members. "I wish everybody well in the next year's time and look forward to seeing you all when I return."

While the council will look for an interim replacement, that won't be the case at home.

Hitchcock's bride of a year, Lacey, and sons Gavin, 12, and Sam, 9, are "not too thrilled," Hitchcock said. "They will miss me. And that makes it tough."

He has the option of returning home on leave for 13 to 18 days during his deployment. His joking remark - "but I don't have to" - was met with a round of family frowns.

"I was joking - but it didn't go over well."

And Lacey wants no surprise appearance on their Akeley doorstep.

"That would be just that many more hours that I wouldn't see him," she said of his journey north.

"I'm nervous," she admits of being a "single mom" caring for her stepsons. Sam, she said, broke down in tears - out of Dad's earshot. "I'm going to miss my daddy," he told her.

"We cried together," Lacey said. "It's going to be a tough year."

She intends to have the local newspapers delivered to her husband - to keep him apprised of council decisions and school events. And they will be able to communicate via e-mail. Both Gavin and Sam now have laptops.

The Hitchcock home computer shows the time and temperature readings in Akeley and Baghdad.

The boys are considering heading to boot camp themselves this summer. Camp Ripley offers a week of recreation for children with deployed parents.

"Akeley is a small town, with neighbor helping neighbor," Lacey said of her own band of morale boosters. She works at the Akeley liquor store. "Customers have been very supportive.

"But he's the bright light of my life. How will I live without him?"