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80 years of service ends on a final note

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Noah Hardin
  • 182nd Airlift Wing

After more than 80 years of military service through music, the final note has been played for Peoria’s Airmen musicians. The 566th Air Force Band had a diverse career, playing for governors’ inaugurations, Tuskegee Airmen, wounded veterans, deployed locations and retirement ceremonies all around the world.

The 566th, also known as the Air National Guard Band of the Midwest, is scheduled for inactivation March 31, 2024. The inactivation comes as the Air National Guard cuts its entire band program as part of a strategic shift in focus to the Indo-Pacific theater.

Master Sgt. James Barnard, an instrumentalist with the 566th Air Force Band—attached to the 182nd Airlift Wing, Peoria, Illinois—started his 32-year career in the Air National Guard in 1992.

“I first enlisted in the Air Force when the band was still at the old Air National Guard base out of O’Hare [International Airport],” said Barnard. “I joined because I was looking for money to pay for school while being a music major.”

Master Sgt. Carrie McWatters, also an instrumentalist with the unit, started her 20-year career in the Air National Guard in 2004.

“One of my favorite things is the band covers a 10-state area of responsibility,” said McWatters. “We have the opportunity to outreach people in rural areas who don't have any connection to the military.”

The connection with people through the band without that presence of military is helpful, said McWatters.

“Part of our mission is providing mission support,” said McWatters. “That’s anything from bringing joy to people, going to other wings and playing for their Air Force ball. We really get to bring that fun and camaraderie through music.”

The band has the ability to showcase the military and its impact on people through music, said McWatters.

“I have been a part of many governor inaugurations during my time with the unit,” said Barnard. “I can remember as far back as Governor Jim Edgar’s inauguration.”

One of the most impactful moments for him is when the band was able to play for veterans and the VA hospitals, said Barnard.

“We get to perform for our nation's heroes,” said McWatters. “Being able to do that through music is so impactful, you can see when their service song is played that they are able to stand and be recognized as it brings back their memories of service.”

The band provides a way for veterans to reminisce on their time in the service through its music, said McWatters.

“My dad was a Vietnam veteran and my parents would come to our performances,” said McWatters. “Being able to see my dad stand up for the Army song is one of my favorite experiences.”

That moment gave her the opportunity to connect with her father through both their time in the service, said McWatters.

“Another fond memory I have is when we performed for the Warrior Games,” said Barnard. “That represented members from the U.S. Armed Forces, Australian Armed Forces and English Armed Forces. Jon Stewart was the MC for that event, we had just learned that Jon Stewart was learning how to play the drums so we coaxed him on stage to play with us for that evening.”

“My hope for the band is for it to be remembered by the way it got out there,” said Barnard. “The way it performed for the community and the Air Force at large.”

McWatters said she hopes for the band's mission to be remembered by the power it had to be able to build connections.

The band has played pivotal roles in various events, including Governor inaugurations, honoring Tuskegee Airmen, supporting wounded veterans, and participating in retirement ceremonies. Master Sgt. James Barnard, with a 32-year career starting in 1992, highlighted the band's role in bringing joy to Veterans and the VA hospitals. Similarly, Master Sgt. Carrie McWatters, with 20 years of service starting in 2004, emphasized the band's outreach across a 10-state area, bringing military connections to rural communities. Reflecting on the band's legacy, Barnard and McWatters expressed their hopes of the 566th Air Force Band being remembered for its impactful community performances and ability to build connections.

While the band is set for inactivation later this month, the performances and the outreach they made in the community will continue to be remembered long after the inactivation has been fulfilled.