Skip to Main Content

Making music in a war zone

Drummer Danny Gottlieb has toured the world performing with such music legends as Sting, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin and The Manhattan Transfer. A founding member of the original Pat Metheny Group, Gottlieb is an associate professor of Jazz Studies at UNF with a musical pedigree dating back more than 30 years.

He loves the environment at UNF but remains passionate about touring and performing. One of his recent tours was a memorable first for Gottlieb. During Thanksgiving week in 2009, he traveled to Afghanistan with actor/musician Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band to perform three concerts for U.S. troops.

“At first,” Gottlieb said, “You wonder, ‘should I really be doing this? and ‘What are we getting into?’”

Gottlieb’s journey with the Lt. Dan Band began about five years ago when he and his wife, Beth, accepted an offer to perform for the Wounded Warrior Project in Orlando with Sinise. Gottlieb was impressed with Sinise, whom he describes as a “really great, solid, musical bassist,” and was excited to join a cover band of experienced musicians.

The following year, Sinise asked the Gottliebs to become permanent members of the band. Sinise was enjoying a successful run on the television show “CSI: NY” and the band played on weekends, based around his shooting schedule. Sinise, who portrayed disabled veteran Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump,” also began a mission to help the troops by providing entertainment and support.

The band has played at U.S. bases at home and around the world. Gottlieb averages 30 to 40 concerts a year, with about 80 percent of the proceeds going to charities.

Before the Afghanistan trip, one of Gottlieb’s friends, Kevin Pocallus, founder of Hot Sticks Manufacturing, made 900 special “Let Freedom Ring” drumsticks featuring Sinise’s signature and a special Thanksgiving Afghanistan 2009 logo to give to the troops as souvenirs.

The trip, which was sponsored by American Airlines, began with a flight from Orlando to Dallas and then on to Frankfurt, Germany, where the band and other entertainers spent a night at the Ramstein Air Base before boarding a giant C-17 cargo plane loaded with munitions for an overnight flight to Kabul, Afghanistan. On the approach to Kabul, the pilot dropped flares to divert any rockets fired at the plane.

“It was just a precaution, but it made me realize I really was, for the first time in my life, in a war zone,” Gottlieb said.

From there, the band boarded a smaller C-130 cargo plane for a short hop to Bagram Air Base, a former Soviet air field, where they played their first concert and spent two nights in tents.

On their third day in the country, band members were asked to pick out a flak jacket and helmet, which caused Gottlieb some alarm.

“We had to put on the 40- to 50-pound vest, a helmet, and then carry our bags to the waiting C-130 cargo plane,” he said. “I can’t imagine how much weight these soldiers have to carry on a daily basis: the jacket, then a 40- to 50-pound pack, and a gun! I hated wearing it, but would certainly be grateful if it saved my life.”

The next stop was Camp Leatherneck, a relatively new Marine Corps base in the hot desert. The concert venue, a flatbed truck in the middle of an open desert, was flanked by two tank-like vehicles on each side of the stage. During the concert, troops danced on top of each vehicle.

“It was a giant party, and playing was such a thrill,” Gottlieb said. “Everyone screamed and cheered.”

Before and after each performance, band members spent time talking with the troops, handed out the souvenir drumsticks and learned about life in a war zone.

“We met soldiers from our home states, cities, some who knew mutual friends, some had seen the band perform at other locations, and some who also played instruments,” Gottlieb said. “It was just an amazing bonding experience.”

The third and final performance took place at the Kandahar Base, which had been shelled earlier that evening but offered real buildings and hot showers. The venue was a field in the middle of a boardwalk. Gottlieb said the event was magical.

“There were bunkers all around, and the instructions were if the sirens go off, follow the soldiers around you to a bunker. We flew in with no problem, and there were no attacks while we were there, but we did know that there was potential danger lurking.”

The following morning, band members ran in a Thanksgiving race and then joined the troops for a Thanksgiving meal. Following tradition, the officers served the enlisted men and women. Sinise and bandleader Kimo Williams jumped behind the food counter to serve as well. Gottlieb said Sinise yelled, “It’s my grandma’s recipe” as he served green beans.

On the flight back to Germany, Mykelti Williamson, who played Bubba in “Forrest Gump” and was among the entertainers on the trip,told the musicians they had brought a little piece of ‘home’ to the troops.

“I hadn’t really looked at it that way,” Gottlieb said, “but it was really true. For the first time, I realized the impact of what we had done and was so proud to be a part of this trip. It felt like you were doing something.”