Thanking Nation’s Fallen Through Music
August 21, 2015
By Jamie Rogers
Alumnus Captain Daniel Boothe, Master of Music Orchestral Conducting ’08, is a music conductor and public affairs specialist for the U.S. Air Force Bands, based at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. He is pictured at the Air Force Memorial. Photo by Alexis Glenn.
For months, Daniel Boothe grappled with the same question: “How do you express the loss caused by death?”
With all the experience that comes with a Master of Music in conducting from George Mason University and an award-winning career as a military musical conductor, Boothe said he still struggled with his most important musical assignment to date.
Just before receiving his current assignment at the Pentagon, Boothe was asked by the Air Force Mortuary Affairs to compose a custom musical accompaniment for each video documentary of U.S. Department of Defense dignified transfers of fallen U.S. soldiers returning home through Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Almost all fallen combat soldiers return to the United States through Dover, Boothe said. The military was paying for the use of commercially licensed music, but sought him out after it was decided the task should be supported internally with music written by a military member. He volunteered his personal time outside of his Pentagon job to compose the piece.
While he was working on the piece in 2013, Boothe said he was asked to participate in a dignified transfer.
“That was a life-changing thing. You understand [death] in a whole new way when you witness a dignified transfer,” he said.
While composing the music, Boothe was also training for his first deployment. As a married father of two with a third due in January, he said the composition process included some painful thoughts of the loss his own family could feel.
“I thought about my wife and children. I thought, ‘Am I going to be the one coming back to my own music?’” he said.
He’s just returned from a six-month deployment to the Middle East, which included time in Afghanistan. He served as an officer in charge of Air Force band musicians who performed for troops stationed in isolated areas. Multiple times, even while performing, the group took cover from incoming mortars being fired from Taliban operatives. They escaped unharmed, he said.
A life spent in preparation
When he was a high school student in Maryland, Boothe said he wanted to come up with the right music to honor World War II veterans, their families and those lost to the war.
“I was so overwhelmed by the consequence of war. This was something I was grappling with at 17 years old,” said Boothe, who comes from a military family.
His father was in the U.S. Marines, a grandfather was in the U.S. Navy and provided support during the Korean War, and a great-great uncle was in the U.S. Army and served in Normandy during World War II.
“Finally, I couldn’t deal with it anymore; who am I to write a piece about a thing of such magnitude? It felt wrong to me.,” he said.
With the help of a mentor, he refocused and went on to write a 17-minute piece with five movements, each a representation of different parts of the war. A few years later through his friendship with a Pennsylvania State Supreme Court judge, who was also a veteran, Boothe said he traveled around the state and played a recording of the music for different veteran organizations, followed by a speech on how and why he wrote it.
“It was challenging for me at the time, being 19 years old and presenting this music [and] having these grown men and women weeping at the sound of my music,” he said. “They embraced me and thanked me through their tears—which is really where I began to realize that while it is difficult to do, it is worth doing.”
Where passions converge
Music and the military are both volunteer endeavors, he added, but both require commitment to a mission.
Boothe said his former instructor, Mason professor Anthony Maiello, shaped his perspective on the assignments he’s been given.
“[Maiello] said, ‘To be successful you’re going to have to be able to walk into any circumstance and deliver,’” Boothe said.
For months he worked closely with the military to come up with 15 minutes of original music that can be edited to be longer or shorter for each dignified transfer, as they vary in length.
In 2014 the military began using Boothe’s music in dignified transfer videos. The videos are offered to all the families of the fallen as a gesture on behalf of the nation.
“Being a musician requires discipline, much like service in the military. Music requires an unceasing dedication,” Boothe said. “And no one is making you do it. You want to do it because you believe it is worth it.”